In last year’s Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom, writer and illustrator Bradley W. Schenck presented an action-packed story set in a ’20s/’30s-esque retro-futurist world of robots and rockets. And it’s back to this fictional universe we go once again in his new illustrated short story collection, Patently Absurd (paperback, Kindle). Though as he explains in the following email interview, the hero this time isn’t of the action variety.
To start, what are the stories in Patently Absurd about?
If you live in a megacity where all science is mad science, you’ve got to worry a bit about just how mad that science is from day to day. In Retropolis, the civil servants who do that worrying for you work at The Registry Of Patents.
On paper, The Registry handles patents on the new inventions that come out of the city’s Experimental Research District. In practice, The Registry keeps an eye on the scientists’ work in progress through a system of preliminary patent applications.
Now and then, some scientist gets obsessed with a really dangerous idea like, say, creating a bacterium that converts water into tapioca. That would be great right after dinner, but kind of a problem for anything — like humans or whales or ships — that relies on having water around. The Registry calls this kind of research a Code Red, and when a Code Red comes in The Registry has to stop it before the research is complete.
But that’s just the job. The officers, investigators, secretaries, and clerks at The Registry are people, whether they’re human or mechanical. So what really concerns them is office politics.
As you said, the six stories in Patently Absurd are set in Retropolis, the same city as your novel Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom. You kind of already answered this, but is there also a theme to the stories, or a framing device?
I don’t realize there was a theme until pretty late, but it’s there: both of the main characters in Patently Absurd are people who’ve decided to reinvent themselves. They’ve both looked at what the world has in mind for them and said “Nope. I’m going to be something else.”
So I’d say the stories are a look at what can happen when you decide to be something that the world didn’t want you to be. It’s enormously frustrating and difficult for Ben Bowman, the human investigator, and Violet, the robot secretary, and that’s a bond between them even though we find by the end that their choices have been very different.
These characters have a pretty amoral approach to the world, so their friendship may be another thing that the world didn’t have in mind and wasn’t quite prepared for.
I’m not sure that I was ready for their ethical greyness myself. That’s a big difference between these stories and the novel. The tone of each comes from its characters, and these characters aren’t the well-meaning optimists that we met in Switchboard.
Aside from having the same setting, how else are the stories in Patently Absurd connected to Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom?
I wanted these stories to stand apart from the novel even though they share the same setting. So there are only a couple of references to the events in Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom. Nobody mentions these; they just show up in a couple of the illustrations. One Switchboard character is referred to, but not by name.
What about the chronology? Are the stories in Patently Absurd set after the events of Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom? Before? A mix?
That’s a question you can settle for yourself. Like I said, there are a couple of references to Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom in the illustrations that suggest these stories come later. But there’s also the possibility that Switchboard happens in the middle of Patently Absurd. That’s the way I see it. There’s a hiatus of about three months between two of these stories, and I think that Switchboard belongs in that gap. Enough time goes by that people have stopped talking about it.
I’m pretty sure I’m right, but hey, I’m wrong all the time.
Did the idea for any of the stories in Patently Absurd come when you working on Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom?
I didn’t start percolating these stories while I was working on Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom, but rather when I wasn’t working on it. There was a long period after Switchboard had sold, but before my editor got to work on the book, and it was during that period that I started thinking about these stories.
I wanted to do something with ordinary people whose jobs made them interact with the mad scientists in the Experimental Research District. So I thought about accountants. I don’t think about accountants that often. I mean, you don’t, do you?
But accountants seemed like the perfect foil for all the craziness that happens in The District. You want a very ordinary, even a boring, kind of person to play against all that mad science.
In the end, accountants were too much for me. I simply couldn’t think of enough interesting events that would relate to accounting. This is probably a failing of mine. But patents…I could see right away how The Registry would work. Then I had to come up with my characters, because everything else follows those. And once I had Ben and Violet I was all set and ready to go.
As you were writing the stories in Patently Absurd, did you ever think of something that made you wish you’d done something different in Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom?
No more than you would anyway when a book is “done” but not complete. I continued to work on these stories while Switchboard made its slow way toward publication, and I’m sure that I thought of all sorts of things I might change; but none of those were due to the stories in Patently Absurd.
In fact, I was enjoying the differences. Switchboard has this gung-ho niceness that comes from its characters; in Patently Absurd the characters aren’t really nice in that way. Violet is so determined to become an investigator that she’s destroyed or removed every Patent Registrar who’s failed to promote her. One’s on a desert island, and that’s not all bad, but more than a dozen have left office in disgrace, or vanished, or been transferred, often through the influence of Violet’s invisible network of office workers. I think Violet’s pretty likable. But she isn’t nice.
And Ben has a dark history with mad science that’s best learned one story at a time, I think, and his ethical compass points in unexpected directions. He’s pretty insensitive and clueless in a lot of ways, but again: curiously likable.
So, like I said, I had a lot of fun with the ways these stories differ from Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom, but that didn’t make me regret those differences in Switchboard.
Are there any writers or books that had an impact on one or more than one of the stories in Patently Absurd, but were not an influence on Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom or any of your other books?
I’m just so bad at identifying influences. I can say that while I was working on Switchboard I read all the fantasy and science fiction short stories of Fredric Brown; during Patently Absurd I did the same thing with Robert Sheckley. But I’m not sure either one really flavored what I was working on.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them inspired one or more of the stories in Patently Absurd?
I don’t think that individual movies and television series have influenced either Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom or Patently Absurd. But I can see another kind of influence at work.
Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom is structured like a season of an ensemble television series. There’s a large cast, and, with a single exception, they progress through the story in sync with one another. There are even timestamps on each section of the book: it’s told in real time, or something like it.
But the stories in Patently Absurd are much shorter. They’re built like the episodes of a done-in-one television show in which each story is complete, but advances an overall story arc.
It’s a bit strange, when I think about it, that I see these in terms of television rather than literature. But when I’m considering structure that seems to be where I land.
How about the illustrations in Patently Absurd, is there anyone or anything that influenced them, but is not an influence on your style as a whole?
The illustrations for Patently Absurd have exactly the same influences as pretty much any illustration of mine. I’ve established a kind of visual grammar that I use to recall some of those influences and to complement the story: there’s not a lot of experimentation there.
One thing is new. In Patently Absurd there are several pages of advertisements for businesses in Retropolis, including classified ads. These give you the sense that you’re reading the stories in a magazine. They also helped me to control the page breaks so my two-page spreads show up at just the right time. Which, you know, was kind of sneaky on my part.
So is your plan to continue writing novels and stories set in and around Retropolis? Because when we did the previous interview about Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom [which you can read here], you said, “there might even be a sequel to Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom. I haven’t decided, yet, though I have written about 30,000 of the wrong words for one.”
First off, I was right. Those were the wrong words. There was some fun stuff in there, including a character we meet now in Patently Absurd — and another who’s a lot like some robots we meet in there, too — but those 30,000 words won’t ever turn into a sequel to Switchboard.
I’m not sure what comes next. Switchboard isn’t pining for a sequel; I left our characters in a reasonable place at the end. And though Patently Absurd could continue, it doesn’t need to either. So whatever comes next will probably be something else, though I’d like to visit some of these characters again.
Chances are I’ll stay in Retropolis. There’s another character who showed up in those wrong words of mine, and I think he has a story to tell; and I have someone else in mind…but I don’t know where that one’s going. These things have to percolate.
It’s been my experience that short stories are a great way to introduce yourself to a writer. My entry into Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, was his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box. But do you think Patently Absurd is a good way for someone to get to know what you’re about?
Short stories are a great way to get to know a writer. There’s so little commitment. You can take a chance with the odd half hour, right? So sure, these stories are probably a great introduction to me. You learn a lot about the everyday Retropolis in here — maybe more so than in Switchboard — and about the people who live there. And you may get a charge out of these ethically dubious people, too, the way we enjoy the misadventures of Jack Vance’s Cugel The Clever.
And of course, there are the illustrations: Patently Absurd is a shorter book than Switchboard, but it has nearly twice the number of illustrations. Enjoy them: I probably won’t do that to myself again. One illustration per chapter was a lot easier on me.
So has there been any interest in adapting any of the stories in Patently Absurd into a movie, TV show, or video game?
I know it transcends reason and causality, but no one in Hollywood knows or cares what I’m doing. On the upside, most of Hollywood’s interest is just an illusion anyhow.
I kind of miss living in Los Angeles, where a neighbor once left a script for me on the seat of my car, and where I learned that a property of mine was being shopped around town and nobody thought to tell me. But it’s mostly mist and shadows. You can’t take it seriously until it’s money in the bank, and that doesn’t happen often.
Finally, if some enjoys Patently Absurd, and they’ve already read Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom, which of your other books would you recommend they read next and why?
The Lair Of The Clockwork Book is an older book, short but densely illustrated — and I wince a little, because I know it has its shortcomings — but it’s another visit to Retropolis in small bites. An eBook edition is available now from Radio Planet Books.
Everybody should also read my next one: it’s just that I’m not sure what that is yet.