When we think about flying cars, robot sidekicks, and heroes wearing bubble-like helmets, we typically think of the 1950s. But while all of those elements play a part in Bradley W. Schenck’s humorous new sci-fi novel Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom (hardcover, digital), in talking to him about it, he said it wasn’t the ’50s that were his inspiration, but an earlier time instead.
To start, what, is Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom about?
Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom imagines a world where the future really turned out the way we once hoped it would. People have personal rocket ships; robots have formed a labor union; scientists are, without exception, as crazy as bedbugs; civilization has clumped up into a big, teeming megacity with soaring towers and a timely, efficient system of public transportation.
And, like they do in any world, people do their best to live there. It’s not always easy.
Say you lose your job. Not just you, but everyone you work with. There’s no explanation, and although that job is still getting done…there doesn’t seem to be anybody doing it any more. Well, you try to find out what happened, don’t you?
In Retropolis, in the Future That Never Was, that means you hire a freelance adventurer to get to the bottom of the mystery. And that mystery turns out to a be a problem much, much larger than what happened to the Info-Slate switchboard where this all began. Because otherwise it would be a pretty short book.
It sounds like Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom is both a modern take on a ’50s sci-fi-ish novel, but also a comedic one. Or am I wrong about that?
Well…I’d hate to say you were wrong. In fact, you’re pretty nearly right, except that I don’t think much about the 1950s. I mean, not if I can help it. The 1950s are just about my least favorite decade.
The city of Retropolis is the way I imagine the future as seen in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the ’30s, when imagining the future was as important as it’s ever been. In the ’30s, the present was appalling.
The reason this looks like the ’50s to you is that people in the ’50s were doing more or less what I’m doing now: imagining that streamlined, gleaming, pre-owned future that had been invented a couple of decades earlier. But, in the ’50s, we were living in a very different world. The ’50s were a bland, self-satisfied, conformist era; so their version of that future was a bland, self-satisfied, conformist’s future.
They remembered [H.G. Wells’] The Shape Of Things To Come. They just forgot everything else.
There are certainly exceptions, especially in short fiction. But on the whole I think it’s more interesting to go back to the wellspring that fed the best of what the ’50s have to offer.
So then what do you consider to be the biggest inspirations for Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom?
The real inspirations for this world, and this book, are the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the earliest Buck Rogers comics; and 1930’s Just Imagine, the world’s first all-singing, all-dancing science fiction musical.
There’s a wonderful, naive quality to these three things. They embodied a lot of optimism, and a particular sense of style, and in each case they simply forged on ahead with that before anybody could point out that quite a lot of this stuff wasn’t possible. Everything was possible.
Just Imagine is a near-perfect template for the City Of Tomorrow. It’s got personal aeroplanes, floating traffic cops, meal and whiskey pills, and fantastic art deco skyscrapers. You know Flash Gordon’s rocket, from the Republic serials? That model was built for Just Imagine. And the miniatures for the city…well, you just have to see it. It’s a shame the film hasn’t been remastered: it’s almost an historical document. It’s also incredibly silly, in a vaudevillian style. Matt Groening’s love for Just Imagine is written all over Futurama.
Buck Rogers’ jumping belt worked because of a lighter-than-air metal called intertron. I love that stuff, and I appropriated a version of it for Retropolis. My whole city, and its monorails and rockets, really works only because of this metal, which I call intertrium. And I’m pretty sure that stuff isn’t possible.
The way I look at it is this: if you’re a person who approaches a book called Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom hoping to find realistic science, you are doomed to be a frustrated, unhappy person. Not yet, maybe: but that’s your fate. Bitterness and despair. So my job is to give you a preposterous book that may make you laugh, change your mind about those expectations, and free you to lead a happier, fuller life.
I just made that up, actually. But, damn, it sounded noble.
Speaking of the novel’s comedic aspects, what funny stuff do you think was an influence on the humorous tone of Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom?
That’s a question that I really can’t answer. All I can do is tell you what I like, in case one of those things somehow helped to shape my voice. But I’m stuck in here, on the inside of my sense of humor. I can’t take a step back to look at it.
I’d have to guess…in period, Morrie Ryskind, S. J. Perelman, the Marx Brothers, and Damon Runyon; in genre, Fredric Brown and the Henry Kuttner/Catherine Moore conglomerate, especially for Robots Have No Tails. More Terry Pratchett than Douglas Adams. There ought to be some Terry Gilliam in there, but it’s hard to tell, with the Marx Brothers pushing everybody out of the way like that.
The thing is, though, I’m not sure any of those are real influences. The humor in Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom is farce, but not slapstick. A lot of it arises from the way ordinary people come to terms with living in a place that’s not, by any standard, sane: it’s just the world as they know it, and they get by. The way we do.
I promise this will be the last influence question, but is there anyone or anything you see as a big influence that might surprise someone? Like how no one will be surprised if you said you were influenced by the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still, but they would if you said you were inspired by Metallica’s Hardwired…To Self-Destruct.
Popular music from the ’20s and ’30s. Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom sounds exactly like Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue and Nat Gonella’s It’s A Pair of Wings For Me.
One of the big things in science fiction novels lately is for books not to be one-offs, but to instead be part of a series, a trilogy or what have you. Is Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom the first book in a series?
Switchboard isn’t the first story I’ve set in Retropolis. It’s not the last one, either. So in that sense, sure, it’s a series.
But it’s not a continuing story about one character, or a couple of characters. I do have recurring characters, and there’s a good chance that they’ll continue to poke their heads in wherever I go. And 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.
But I don’t think of this as a series, with a #1, a #2, and a #46. These are stories that are linked because they’re set in the same place, and feature some of the same people.
Now, one of the interesting things about Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom is that you not only wrote it, but you also did a number of illustrations for it. Given that you can draw as well as write, did you ever consider doing Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom as a comic book?
I started a comics project years before I began to write Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom. Well, I say “started.” In fact, I worked on pre-production for about a year before I understood that I was never going to get out of pre-production. I just don’t work quickly enough to make comics.
And I didn’t learn my lesson, either. When I built the Thrilling Tales Of The Downright Unusual website, I created a format that called for an illustration on every page, even if that page had only a couple of hundred words of text on it.
There’s all kinds of smart, I guess. You can’t have them all.
Now, unless I’m mistaken, Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom is not your first novel. You previously wrote The Lair Of The Clockwork Book and Trapped In The Tower Of The Brain Thieves: Part One Of The Toaster With TWO BRAINS, both of which are in a series you call “Thrilling Tales Of The Downright Unusual.” Are they connected at all to Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom?
Absolutely everyone who reads Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom should buy The Lair Of The Clockwork Book and Trapped In The Tower Of The Brain Thieves, because I’d really like to have that money.
Aside from that, though, they don’t really need to.
Now, there are a few characters in Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom who met earlier, in The Lair Of The Clockwork Book; and how much, or how little, to say about that was a problem. Originally I think I said too little, and my editor encouraged me to say just a little bit more. But you can’t really do a complete recap: you just make it clear what the relationships are, and then you get on with it.
One thing that’s never explained in Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom is just who it is that’s telling the story. But anybody who’s read The Lair Of The Clockwork Book should know that right away.
Is there a Trapped In The Tower Of The Brain Thieves: Part Two Of The Toaster With TWO BRAINS in the works?
This is a sad situation. I’ve written The Riddle Of The Wrong Brain, which is Part Two of The Toaster With TWO BRAINS. And it’s a lot better than Part One. It really is. I saw some things about the interactivity in Part One that didn’t work well, and I put those lessons to work in Part Two.
But I don’t think you’ll ever see it. That’s because of the format I mentioned above. There are over eighty illustrations in Trapped In The Tower Of The Brain Thieves; there are over 120 of them in The Lair Of The Clockwork Book. In this format there’s an illustration on every single page, regardless of how little text there is.
I’ve tried a different format lately, with a lower density of illustrations. And that does work for a serial; but it can’t work for an interactive story. So it’s just too expensive for me to finish The Riddle Of The Wrong Brain.
All of this talk about what people in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’50s thought the future would be like reminds me of another new book, and I’m curious if you’ve read it or heard of it. It’s called All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai.
I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t read it yet. Still wrestling with that ancient question, “How can I read everything?”
Is it also safe to assume you’ve already read Adam Christopher’s noir-flavored sci-fi robot detective novel Made To Kill and its sequel, Killing Is My Business, given that you and Adam have the same publicist?
Nope, that’s an unsafe assumption you’ve got there. Again, I’ve heard about them, but I haven’t gotten to them yet.
One of the things about All Our Wrong Todays is that it’s already being made into a movie, with Mastai writing it. Has there been any talk of making a Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom movie?
You know, for some reason nobody’s approached me about that. And in most cases after a book is optioned for film, the film never happens. So we probably shouldn’t hold our breath while we wait.
Funny story: Back when I lived in Southern California I discovered that an idea of mine was being shopped around as a film project. Nobody remembered to tell me. And, no, that movie never happened either.
So if Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom was going to be made into a movie, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them?
The two main characters in Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom are each in their early 20s. So dream casting doesn’t really work, here; everything would depend on when the film was made.
It’s more fun to think about directors. I have thought about that. There are lots of ways to handle this world on film, and three directors who would each go a different way would be Wes Anderson [The Royal Tenenbaums], Jean-Pierre Jeunet [City Of Lost Children], and Joe Johnston [Captain America: The First Avenger]. It’s fun to imagine Retropolis as seen through those three unique lenses: everything from highly stylized, through weirdly realistic, to down-to-earth and solid.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom, what would you suggest they read next and why?
I’d say my own Patently Absurd, but that’s both self-serving and cruel, since it won’t be out for months and months. They’ll probably want to read something before then.
I don’t think there’s anything exactly like Slaves Of The Switchboard Of Doom out there. But anybody who likes it will probably also like The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez. I recently enjoyed Will Save The Galaxy For Food, by Yahtzee Croshaw, and Becky Chambers’ A Closed And Common Orbit. And there’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima and The Madonna And The Starship, both by James Morrow, and John Scalzi’s Agent To The Stars.
Oh, I just read that, that was good.
No, I really meant that: what are you still doing there?