Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis feels somewhat familiar, even though I’ve never read one of these novels; I’m pretty sure given the series/setting name (Retropolis), that’s intentional. If you think about one of those 1940s-ish era sci-fi or “world of the future” images or stories, you’ve basically got this novel, both in terms of written content and visuals (there are occasional full and partial page illustrations. Everything looks and sounds (word and image again) vaguely cartoony, kind of familiar, and yet vaguely bland.
As you might expect with an adventure novel, there’s a quest and a mystery, with several subplots, that all eventually converge. The main quest/mystery is why were all the Info-Slate switchboard operators suddenly fired, and what might the engineer Howard Pitt have to do with it? The ladies decide to hire free-lance adventurer Dash Kent to look into things. Another engineer type Abner Perkins is also curious about Pitt, and several people are wondering what Rusty the robot is up to. There are several other characters and questions that tangentially relate like Spider Priest on the moon Thorgeir and his cat-kidnapping schemes, Dr. Lillian Krajnik and the many other scientists living in the Experimental Research Zone, a couple of independent/troublemaker children who basically adopt a miniaturized giant security robot with potentially damaged communications and thinking capacities, and Albert King, President of the Fraternal League of Robotic Persons. Even with such a big cast, it’s actually not too hard to keep track of everyone, which surprised me a little bit, especially since everyone seems to have the same personality.
Maybe it’s part of the 1940s future-imagined vibe, but I think this whole thing could have been a lot more fun if people had more reactions to each other and to events that they experience. It’s like everyone has the same basic personality in spite of their being different roles, like the hero/adventurer (Dash) and the switch-board lady who goes to him for help and sticks around for much of the adventure (Nola Gardner). You’d expect some kind of attachment there, and there kind of could be one, but neither Dash nor Nola really seems to notice anything even potentially romantic. On the one hand, that’s ok since that sort of thing can get in the way of the adventure fun and Nola is every bit as active as Dash is in several instances, but on the other hand, neither of them really seems to feel anything beyond mild annoyance, uncertainty, or on occasion apprehension. Even when they’re being chased by what should be a terrifying robot threatening to destroy them if they don’t surrender, the worst anyone seems to feel is “oh, dear” or “that’s not great” Even the villain who is not really any kind of surprise has a totally bland plot and kind of blah reasoning behind it. On the one hand again, retro does mean familiar in a way, but I do wish that could have been a little more interesting or animated at least.