Book Review: The Bobiverse Trilogy by Dennis E. Taylor

The Bobiverse trilogy is an excellent blend of high concepts, believable future, adventure and action.  It is both entertaining and introspective, with deep moral dilemmas.  The prose is easy flowing, and the characters relatable.  However, is misses its mark by not fully exploiting its potential, becoming already dated at its time of release, and occasionally getting bogged down by false leads and unfinished threads.  The books are thus a mixed bag, which one reader may enjoy while another may find boring.

Bob Johannson is a tech entrepreneur who sold his company and signed a contract to have his head cryogenically frozen upon his death, so that it can be reattached to a functioning clone when they become available in the future.  Then he is promptly run over by a car.  He wakes up over a century later, to find himself in a computer box as an artificial intelligence, instead of having a new body.

The world has changed since his death, and now the handful of superpowers are in a new arms race, trying to launch self-replicating artificial intelligences.  These are called the Von Neumann probes, a concept known to science even today.  The probes carry 3D printers, which allow them to make clones of themselves, and have their numbers grow almost geometrically.  Quantity of probes over quality of speed (after all, speed of light is still the limit) would assure the most efficient exploration of the galaxy.

Bob is the first one in his country who doesn’t go insane by the experience, and is soon launched into space.  He promptly flies off, as he is threatened by the other nations.  In order to keep from being bored, he creates a VR simulation of his home, and gradually improves on his software.  He creates a couple of clones, each with its slightly different personalities, and sets off to explore the galaxy.  A few clones decide to revisit Earth.

In space and in the Solar System the Bobs run into another Van Neumann probe, launched by the Brazilians.  The Brazilians didn’t take to Bob kindly and initiated a nuclear war, which left much of the Earth devastated.  In the process they got wiped out, and now the Brazilian probes try to make sure none of the other humans survive.  One of Bob’s clones is able to prevent the Brazilians from dropping a few asteroids on Earth, gets in touch with the remaining human governments and comes up with a plan to ship them to other habitable planets.

By this point, the books would have already split into several storylines.  The original Bob found fledgling intelligent life, the Deltans, and decided to stay on site to help them evolve into a real society.  Riker, Bob’s clone who rescued the remains of Earth, is coordinating the exodus.  Bill, another clone, decided to set up an R&D shop, and throughout the books we can experience his advancements – in space craft, weapons but also communication technology – that make the Bobs’ lives easier.  Others are either exploring the galaxy, terraforming or taking care of the first human colonies.

A major plot line emerges in the second book, when the Bobs encounter an intelligent race, bent on exploiting all natural resources they can find and not caring about killing anyone who may be near these resources.  Much of the books then focus on the fight between the Bobs and these Others.

The series is choke-full of other side stories.  One of the Bobs leads a rebellion against an oppressive government at a colony.  Another is trying to eliminate particularly nasty insects at another.  And a third one falls in love with a human, despite the objections of her daughter.  In fact, Bobs are the heart and soul of the books.  They are not perfect.  They make mistakes and face difficult choices.  They are traumatized by the consequences of their mistakes and agonize about the difficult decisions they have to make.  Ultimately, however, they are all benevolent with a strong (and nearly identical) moral compass.  The side stories just enable the author to present us with more opportunities to explore Bob’s morality than would be possible in a single lifetime of one character.

However, many of these stories lead nowhere.  They may be interesting at the beginning, but they tend to get bogged down and boring towards the end.  It almost seems as if the author was projecting his bucket list, if he were able to live forever.  Another of the author’s projections is the heavy use of cultural references.  From the names of different Bobs, to their personalities and much of their conversations it is evident that the original Bob (and probably Dennis E. Taylor as well) was an avid consumer of science fiction movies and TV.  The series are overflowing with Star Trek and Star Wars references, jokes from recent cartoon series, sci-fi movies, and even deviate into fantasy and mythology.  This destines the books to an early grave: already some of the references and idioms were quite dated when I read them, and in a decade or two new readers will have no idea what is going on.

Both the side stories and contemporary references may be off-putting to some readers, but I believe the main problem is the unrealized potential of the books.  As someone who got to enjoy the expansive works of Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks in the recent years, I was at first unhappy with the missed potential of having Bobs expand across the entire galaxy.  As the series progressed, though, I got to appreciate Taylor’s limited reach.  In face of the scope he could achieve, the Bobiverse series feels quaint, almost like pastoral science fiction of the old times, where the story takes place in a relatively low-tech backyard.  In this case in the backyard of our galactic arm.

I mentioned low-tech on purpose, because I believe this is the greatest miss of the series.  For a work that has self-replicating A.I. with virtually endless time at its disposal, 3D printers and alien technology, the Bobiverse is remarkably low-tech.  The Bobs managed to improve on existing technology by making engines faster and with better acceleration, created androids where they could transfer their consciousness, and achieved a breakthrough with instant communication.  The books briefly touch, but don’t dwell, on cities floating in the air.  However, the Bobs still fight essentially with big rocks or metal balls.  Futuristic weapons like lasers have very limited use, and the Bobs’ ultimate weapon is nuclear warheads.  I feel that the biggest omission here, though, was distributed consciousness.  Bobs are limited to one set of sensory inputs and outputs.  As a result, if they want to control a robot or a drone, they have to switch to that device.  This goes as far as the Bobs performing these tasks in real time, even though they can speed up their consciousness to work between milliseconds, and thus control multiple devices, one at a time, each second.  What I would have loved to see, though, is a true distributed consciousness.  Ann Leckie did a wonderful job describing it, in first person view, in Ancillary Justice.  Taylor had the opportunity and I believe a better setup to do something similar here, to great effect.

If I’m so smart, why don’t I write my own book about Van Neumann probes exploring the galaxy?  A very valid question, to which I can only answer that I’m not that smart.  I’m a consumer of sci-fi literature, not a creator.  And as a consumer, I get to read what is given (sold) to me, not what I wish was given.  I still appreciated Bobiverse for what it was.  It was a fun short trilogy that kept me entertained, albeit not too challenged.  I don’t think the books, or this review, will be interesting to anyone born in this century, due to its pop culture references, but for us slightly older geezers they are a fun view into the future, through the eyes of one of our contemporaries we could easily identify with.

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