Review by C.J. Bunce
A great imagination is a rare thing. Science fiction has always been, at its core, an avenue for writers to express the endless breadth of their imaginations. In Bradley W. Schenck’s new novel from Tor Books, Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis, Schenck creates a story within a world we’ve never seen before, a world only hinted at in early 20th century pop culture, early pulp novels, and film. For fans of classic sci-fi and all things retro, Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom deftly handles science fiction futurism like rarely seen before. With the same awe and amazement that readers flocked to the future worlds created by Philip K. Dick in his myriad short stories, readers will be glued to the visuals Schenck introduces here. Painted with shiny blue enamel and chrome, his details are filled with answers to questions from yesteryear. Answers to questions about the handling of the day-to-day, the mundane, and the ordinary, in an uncertain world of tomorrow where nothing could possibly be mundane or ordinary. After all they have ray guns and rockets and use slide rules like we use smart phones.
We’re introduced to Retropolis, its immense size and cities inspired by an Art Deco-era mindset and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, yet a world not at all dark or dreary. This world is new, big, and bright, as detailed, and as big as the original world audiences discovered in Tron in 1982, but far more developed than the future world we met earlier in Logan’s Run. Closer to anything else, this is Walt Disney’s vision of Tomorrowland. The hero is everyman, like Korben Dallas, a Plumber-Adventurer, with all the dash and dazzle of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, whose nemesis is a Bondian villain pulled right out of Moonraker, with an equally vile plan to destroy the world as we know it–or at least as our grandparents might have dreamed it.
Like Metropolis, Schenck delves into the trials of human nature at the personal level in an industrialized world, as he follows a crew of switchboard operators whose jobs appear to have been displaced by robots. But even the robots of Retropolis are like nothing you’ve seen before. They are several steps before Replicants, but they are People in an early climb up the ladder toward autonomy. It’s a 1930s vision, with a 1950s shine, bogged down with 21st century problems. But don’t think this is a political book–the plight of the humans and the robots merely give credibility and gravity to this exciting and fun reality as a small band of average Retropolitans attempt to save the world from certain doom. And there’s more–Schenck is not only the author of the novel, but the artist supplying futuristic illustrations of his world, complete with end pages featuring a useful guide to each of the story’s main characters. With so many books written to drive you to the happening at the end, it’s the whirlwind fun of the ride that will prompt you to slow down and enjoy every word–and not want to finish the book so quickly. It’s great fun. Even each chapter has a classic, grand, Saturday morning serial title.
The science of Retropolis is fantastical. Schenck’s concoction of a personal temporal diffraction device is wildly brilliant, as are many of his inventions. Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom belongs in the sub-genre alongside The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and Iron Giant and the holodeck world of Star Trek Voyager’s Tom Paris holonovel The Adventures of Captain Proton. It’s a sprawling story with a dozen characters to keep track of, and plays out like a giant movie where every supporting character has his day. In the end all the threads satisfyingly come together.
Clever and refreshingly new, Bradley W. Schenck’s Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis is available now here from Amazon. What should be your next retro fix, it’s one of the best reads you’ll find for 2017.