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Topic Archive: Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom
A novel of Retropolis - coming from Tor Books in 2017 Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom - cover image

“...This novel gave me a happy buzz. Remember when SF used to be upbeat and fun? Well, the fun is back and it's right here.”

“...a madcap mash-up of retro-sf, full of fearless heroes and heroines dashing about like Flash Gordon meets the Keystone Cops.”

“Like a madcap retro-tech collaboration by Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov. I loved it!”

21 Illustrated Chapters of Adventure
Robot indentures in ‘Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom’

Filed under Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

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Let’s say you have a massive megacity, partly lighter than air, filled with personal rocket ships, intelligent robots, and public transportation that’s both sensible and universal.

That’s not a hypothetical proposition. You can have one. I’ve got one. It’s the city of Retropolis.

“Oh,” you say, “that doesn’t count. It’s imaginary.”

“That hardly matters,” I reply, “when I know that you’re an imaginary commenter.”

And you fall silent, so I continue.

I invented Retropolis around the end of the last century. And I’ve spent quite a lot of time there. I began to set stories in my City of Tomorrow about three years before I started tinkering with Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: but they were short, or at least short-ish, stories, and in a short-ish story you don’t have a lot of room for the details and fiddly bits that are essential when you’re working on something as long as a novel.

In a novel you have to worry a lot more about how all this stuff works: the stuff that’s not important in a short-ish story because it falls outside the scope of what must be known in order for the story to make sense.

One of the biggest fiddly bits was the robots of Retropolis.

Retropolis has a lot of robots. They’re everywhere. And although they are clearly not human people, they are people. They’re just a different kind of person.

Still, making a robot is completely different from making a human person.

“It’s not as much fun,” you interject.

But I have lost patience. “Stop doing that. People are staring.”

In practical terms, a new human’s expense is pro-rated across a couple of decades; a robot’s expense comes completely, and sizably, at the beginning.

Making a robot is an investment. So who’s investing?

That was the question I had to answer. Now, I want to emphasize that I wasn’t looking for a great system. I wasn’t even looking for a good system. What I wanted was a kind of system that human people would think up when faced with this problem.

That’s why I settled on indentures. We’ve used them before.

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom_ illustration for Chapter Two

You don’t buy a robot in Retropolis. You just pay for its production. Then that robot is required to work for you, at a certain rate, until its indenture has been paid. Once the robot’s paid off its indenture it becomes a free agent, able to continue working for you (for wages), or to quit its job and work for somebody else, or to set up as a freelancer and work for lots of different people.

Like all systems this sounds great on paper, especially to the person who dreams it up. And to everybody else, once it’s established, it becomes the system. Somebody’s designed the system. Somebody’s made sure the system is fair. And, since it’s established, we no longer have to think about the system. It’s just the way things work. And that’s the way we work, once we decide that a system is handling a problem for us.

Retropolitans are pretty good with systems, and they run their city pretty well, so if you’re going to have an indenture system it’s a good idea to run it fairly, the way they do.

But indentures aren’t perfect. There are lots of ways they can go wrong. And the incentive for making them go wrong is pretty compelling, since it involves making loads of money.

Student loans are a kind of indenture. Any kind of debt can be a form of indenture, once the lender is able to garnish your wages. If you give the indenture holders the ability to change the rules at any time, an indenture may never end: there’s just so much money to be made, if they never end. And an indenture that never ends? That’s slavery.

I remember how horrified I was, once, when I learned that – not fifty miles from my own home – there was a farm where illegal immigrants were saddled with the cost of their travel to the United States, and then forced to work for the farm that had bought that debt. They had to live on site and work, in terrible conditions, while they were charged high rates for their lodging and food. This was an indenture system that was designed to keep those laborers indentured forever. It’s a terrible system that we’ve invented more than once, and which we sadly continue to invent. I’d guess that the people who cook up these schemes often think they’re doing it for the first time. But they’re not. We’ve done the same thing over and over again.

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom - Title Page

So an indenture system, despite its built-in risks for corruption and abuse, is exactly the kind of system we’d be likely to come up with when it comes to intelligent robots.

Fortunately for the robots of Retropolis, the city has a pretty responsible system. There’s oversight; there are penalties; and once they’ve paid off their indentures the robots are free people, just like human people. The robots themselves have formed the Fraternal League of Robotic Persons, and one of the League’s main functions is to pool member dues to help robots pay off their indentures.

But there’s always the possibility that things will go wrong.

If you build your own robots in a place that’s not known, not regulated, you can simply not tell your robots about indentures, or about freedom: they’re in your power. At that point you appear to own the robots themselves. At that point, you’re building slaves.

Here’s an embarrassing fact. It wasn’t until I was working on the book’s third draft that I realized the League system for paying off indentures is a lot like the system used by the Discworld golems. They aren’t exactly the same: the golems are considered property, so Pratchett’s Golem Trust purchases them outright and then makes them their own owners. But they are pretty similar.

All I can say there is that this Pratchett fellow was pretty smart, and so he got there ahead of me.

The best news of all for the Retropolitan robots is that the system of indenture may be coming to an end. They have a new President over there, and he has long-term plans for robot production that aren’t known to the human people of the city.

His plans aren’t secret. It’s just that the human people, content that they have a system in place, aren’t very curious about what the League is doing.

 
 
New promotions, reviews, and a giveaway for ‘Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom’

Filed under Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

Dust jacket art for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom Mockup of the finished book

We’ve just passed the two-month mark in the countdown to Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom; so the great gears of the publicity machine have begun to turn and grind away at last.

The thing you want to know first is that Tor Books has started a giveaway over at Goodreads. Ten lucky readers will get their very own copy of the book for the low, low price of absolutely free!

Just enter (up until May 15) for your chance to win one of the ten hardcover copies.

Still not sure whether you should spend your hard-earned no dollars at all on the book? Well, it’s now available to book bloggers through NetGalley, and that means new reviews: highlights include this review at The Review Curmudgeon and Brad K. Horner’s review at Goodreads. So go read ’em; I know you listen to those guys more than you listen to me.

In the weeks ahead we can look forward to more. I have a guest post and an interview that will be appearing soon, and I’m told there will be more of that before the book’s release on June 13.

So now that you’re completely sold on the book I’m sure you’ll want your very own poster or T-shirt featuring the cover (or, as we see above, the original cover concept.) Because, honestly, who wouldn’t?

 
 
Captive breeding population of ‘Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom’ about to be released into the wild

Filed under Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

ARCs of Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

Having nearly completed their prolonged breeding program, these rare Advance Reading Copies of Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom are seen here, in New York’s historic Flatiron Building, as they await their release into their native habitat. It’s a happy day for the book’s well-wishers everywhere.

At the same time we can’t forget that hunting season for these books looms just ahead: starting on June 13 anybody – with or without a hunting license – is authorized to capture the book at will.

It’s hoped that these copies, slated for delivery to trade publications and reviewers, will help to promote the book’s ultimate success in what we hope will be a friendly, welcoming environment.

 
 
‘Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom’ has a real release date; also, a new blurb from Lawrence M. Schoen

Filed under Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

I just realized I’ve never mentioned that Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom now has a release date that we can believe. It’s June 13! That’s the day we Mockup of the finished book need to think about.

Okay. I’m thinking about it. I don’t know what you’re doing.

We’ve been through the line and copy editing passes, and though I’ve yet to see a galley with all the illustrations in place it seems like the book has begun to make its stealthy, mysterious passage through the world. If you define “the world” as “people who know my editor”.

The reason I think this is true is that there’s a new review in the book’s feed from Macmillan.


“Schenck presents the best future from our past. Robotastic and charming.”

― Lawrence M. Schoen, author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard

So, yep. Robotastic. And charming, a word that’s been used to describe the book before. I never suspected that it was charming, and the idea took some getting used to; but I’m on board with it now. Charm away. Get all charming, book. Go forth and be charming. On June 13. In bookstores, and everyplace else.

 
 
Win an artist’s proof of my cover art for “Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom”

Filed under Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, Works in Progress

Dust jacket art for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

Some lucky – or, at least, some random – attendee at this month’s Arisia convention in Boston will be going home with a signed proof of the poster version of my dust jacket art for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom.

How could that happen? Well, throughout the weekend they’ll be selling raffle tickets for this and other Fabulous Prizes; and then on Sunday there’ll be a drawing. Proceeds from the raffle will go to the Alzheimer’s Association in memory of Sir Terry Pratchett.

 

The final Back cover detail for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doomposter will eventually be available to the public, but that won’t happen for a while. So this is your chance to steal a march on those folks next door who always get the first dust jacket posters for anything I do. You know those people. You hate those people. They’re just so smarmy.

It’s worth a trip to Boston, just to show them who’s boss.

So if this all sounds great to you, but you have no idea what Arisia is, you can read all about “New England’s largest, most diverse Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention” right over here.

Hey, Ursula Vernon and Stephanie Law are going to be there. I’m thinking it’s worth your time. And of course there’s the added bonus of a signed print of the Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom cover, for someone who could be you.

 
 
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