It’s hard to say exactly why popular culture settled on the mad scientist as an essential ingredient for stories that look science fictional. The wild-haired, cackling inventor who meddles in Things That Man Was Not Meant to Wot Of could just as easily have been a lawyer or an accountant. Because lawyers and accountants meddle in Things That Man Was Not Meant to Wot Of every day, and you can measure their success by whether or not anybody Wotted Of what they were doing.
Though I guess that’d be a different kind of story.
Me, I’d enjoy a story about wild-haired, cackling accountants. But the zeitgeist has spoken: mad scientists are the thing.
So when I set myself to building the city of Retropolis I had to do something about mad science. My solution was twofold.
First, I made it big. Big to the point where, in this world, all science is mad. There’s just no such thing in Retropolis as a careful, methodical researcher who slowly extends the limits of our knowledge through carefully designed and controlled experiments, complete with double-blind studies and peer review.
If you even suggested that to a Retropolitan scientist, you’d get a wild-haired cackle and you’d find yourself floating in a vat of something you’d rather not think about.
So that was number one. Make it big.
Next you have to wonder how a society would deal with Big Mad Science. And there are a lot of things there to consider.
Because there are benefits to Big Mad Science. Sure, you get a lot of explosions and unfortunate by-products from these inventions, like mutations, and huge poisonous clouds, and flying squids. But you also get rapid advances in every discipline, from Robotics to Fluid Mechanics to (my personal favorite) Defensive Botany.
My City of Tomorrow is practically defined by its Big Mad Science. So the people who live there must have developed a system that encourages this kind of research while protecting the civilians from its side effects. And they did. They created the Experimental Research District. It works like this:
The District represents one successful approach to innovation.
If you take every wild-eyed scientist with a lab full of explosively inventive progress and then shove them into the same small neighborhood, it was argued, they would tend only to hurt themselves, each other, and their assistants. There would always be civilian casualties, of course: but it was so much easier to keep those to a minimum if the threats were all crowded together. The apparent danger of one immense, coordinated incident was considered small because the occupants of the District tended toward self regulation of the kind that starts with ‘Fenwick’s project may be more remarkable than mine!’ and ends with ‘Good old Fenwick. When shall we see his like again?’
The Air Safety Association has a special squad trained to deal with the District. That training, although Bonnie did not know it, was concentrated in a very large, top secret manual entitled Things We Have Run From, and How To Run From Them.
– from The Lair of the Clockwork Book
But of course this raises the question of how you can round up all these mad inventors so you can confine them in one part of the city. The answer there is to get ’em when they’re young.
The Retropolis Academy for the Unusually Inventive is the only place in the city where students can study science. Oh, there are plenty of engineering schools, plenty of general universities, and many, many schools for younger students. But any students in those other schools who start to show the telltale signs of a scientific mind are swiftly transferred to the Academy.
They might escape notice when they memorize the Periodic Table; they can easily slip by if they tinker with the chemicals in a chemistry lab; but the moment they build their first Antimatter Catapult or High Energy Squirrel Emulsifier, their teachers pull them out of class and pack them off to the one school that’s prepared to deal with their particular talents. Once they arrive they’re on a fast track program that will one day release them into the Experimental Research District – the only place in Retropolis, by statute, where scientific research can be pursued.
Having entered the Academy there was, normally, only the one outcome: a lifelong career in the middle of the explosions and the sometimes successful transmogrifications that punctuate both the District and quite a few of the careers we just mentioned, with punctuation marks like the period, the exclamation mark, and, now and then, the question mark. In careers of this type, an ellipsis is extremely rare.
– from Fenwick’s Improved Venomous Worms, in Patently Absurd
You have to applaud the kind of ingenuity that lets a society adapt to both the blessings and the curses of its Big Mad Science. The zoning regulations of Retropolis were well thought-out and perceptive; the education system works hand-in-hand with those regulations; and as a result the citizens of Retropolis are relatively safe from the side-effects of Mad Science, while they’re still able to enjoy its benefits.
And if the system seems a little bit crazy to you or me, we have to remind ourselves that it’s their response to a crazy situation. If we take a good, piercing look at our own situation, and the systems we’ve put in place to adapt to it, we may find that we’re not in a position to judge.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.