Book review: Heaven’s River (Bobiverse 4) by Dennis E. Taylor

Taylor’s books are a more mature version of John Scalzi’s space operas.  The characters are a little more believable, the plot and story slightly more plausible.  On the other hand, the writing style and language are just as pedestrian.  The Bobiverse may not be groundbreaking, but it remains one of my guilty pleasures.  After the original trilogy concluded with no lose ends, I didn’t expect or crave another book, and so I was very pleasantly surprised with what I personally consider the best of the series.  In addition to the expected alien encounters and large-scale building projects, this book also comments on current cultural events and delves into the philosophy of morality.

Let’s start with a recap.  Bob is dead.  The original Bob got run over by a car.  However, his body was cryogenically preserved to a time where his mind could be successfully transferred to a computer matrix to form the processor core for a Van Neuman probe.  This is a probe that can not only think for itself, but also replicate itself and build all kinds of neat things.  Bob was shot into space with the orders to explore the galaxy, and in the process, he cloned himself countless times, found habitable planets where he resettled the remains of the human population after a global war, and found aliens – some good, some evil.  Bob’s main asset always was his personality: in life he was a pragmatic and very curious engineer, so he continued to evolve his knowledge, improve on his equipment and take no nonsense from people in their new colonies.  This put a degree of strain in his relationship with people, but he could always entertain himself with new projects.

The original Bob just started a new project on his own: to find one of his descendants, Bender, who disappeared while exploring the galaxy.  After some searching and deduction, Bob finds an object around a star: a large enclosed ring, which circles an entire star and provides shelter for an alien civilization.  As he explores the system, he finds debris of Bender’s ship and deduces that if Bender is still alive, he is kept inside the structure.  Detailed scanning reveals that the ring, named Heaven’s River, is populated by otter-like semi-aquatic creatures, and Bob enlists the help of several groups of his clones to design several lifelike androids, which he and a few others occupy, to sneak into the ring and find Bender.  Much of the book, which is about twice the length of each of the first three novels, then revolves around the adventures of the four androids in Heaven’s River.  Taylor created a very rich and detailed world and introduced many plausible scenarios of misunderstandings between the locals and the androids.

Unfortunately, there is also trouble in Bobiverse, the virtual world that is populated by Bob and his clones.  As new cloning took place, the new generations begun to drift away from Bob’s original personality.  Certain personality traits become dominant in some Bobs, while others were suppressed.  So, there is a group that enjoys gaming above anything else.  Another group is anti-social and shuns contact with people.  And yet another group, which fashions itself after Star Trek, seems to be the dumb ones, who simply want to drag everyone else down to their level.  These Trekkies try to force everybody to adopt the idea of Prime Directive, a concept in Star Trek where any contact with lesser developed races is prohibited to prevent the pollution of their evolution.  The Trekkies succeed in attacking the Bobs’ and humans’ physical infrastructure by blowing up communication arrays and 3D printing facilities, severely damaging communications and manufacturing capability.  A short war ensues and even though the Trekkies lose at the end, they succeed in alienating the Bobs and humans to an extent where the former must leave most of the human colonies.

The book alternates between the two storylines and concludes both of them by the end.  However, it also introduces several forks, which may be further developed in the next book.  These threads include the search for a new habitable planet for those humans who want to coexist with the Bobs, the relationship between humans and another alien race that seems to be heading towards war, the development of true artificial intelligence, and more.

It’s difficult for me to critique Heaven’s River.  Despite its length, which was much greater than that of previous books, this title is choke full of worldbuilding, fun concepts and new ideas.  This makes the book feel a little disjointed, and the haphazard structure of chapters doesn’t help to create an overreaching narrative.  What’s worse, the two main storylines are largely insular, with any relationship between them seeming a little strained, possibly with a single, very clever exception, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

The Heaven’s River storyline is interesting for its worldbuilding.  The alien society is very well developed, with great attention to detail.  Taylor clearly kept asking himself what could go wrong if an outsider entered their society and pretended to be one of them, and then used every opportunity to have the Bobs go wrong.  The aliens, when they realize there are intruders among them, act rationally and pose a plausible threat to the Bobs.  However, they have their own individuality and their own motivations, to an extent where the book can barely contain all their personalities.  Despite its length, this portion of Heaven’s River feels very dense.

The civil war storyline is where most of the fun is.  It is clearly an allusion to popular Internet culture, but it also provides some interesting insights.  The cloning drift between new generations of the Van Neuman probes appears to be inspired by the browser-based game Universal Paperclips.  Taylor actually mentions paperclips in a seemingly unrelated fashion elsewhere, but I like to think it was a nod to the game.

What really drives this storyline, however, are the parallels with the current Internet culture wars.  In Heaven’s River we have a group of Bobs who feel inadequate because of a dilution of their interests and presumably lower intellect.  Living among engineers, some more universalist and other quite focused, they feel the need to carve a place for themselves.  They do so by becoming gatekeepers and creating rules for everyone else, which they are willing to enforce at all cost.  They are initially ridiculed and later ostracized, which only strengthens their resolve.  When they final launch an offensive, however, they are surprised at the level of animosity they receive.  To me, this is very similar to current trends in social media where a very vocal and largely stupid minority is trying to destroy or at least ostracize more accomplished people who don’t adhere to the same worldview.  (Customary disclaimer: I am not active on any social media other than Reddit, so my perception is based on hearsay.)

Taylor, however, faced a challenge that the Internet trolls don’t: Bobiverse is decentralized, and nobody controls access.  Bobs are also very independent, so it’s not possible to have them fired from jobs.  The author acknowledges as much when he describes how the original Bob and his cohort become upset at being forced to follow a rule set up by someone else.  They argue that everyone is free and perfectly capable to do whatever they want, and nobody should be forced to do what someone else tells them.  Bob and others feel that they can simply walk away from the Trekkies and do their own thing.  This is not the case of the real world where time and time again it’s been shown that people who try to walk away and create their own communities face technical and economic penalties for doing their own thing, due to the centralized nature of the Internet and payment processors.  Taylor resolves this difference by having the Trekkies physically attack infrastructure that belongs to Bobs.  They fail at the end, which may be a hint that despite its current drawbacks, the Internet is also improving.  With Starlink and mesh networking, it may soon become possible to walk away from conflict for people who wish to do so.

Unlike the real world, however, Taylor offers a very easy way to reconcile.  This is done very cleverly, in the Heaven’s River storyline, but with clear allusions to the civil war.  He amends the Golden Rule, to do to others as you wish others did to you.  He renames it the Silver Rule and stipulates that the Golden Rule should be to treat others in a way the others want to be treated.  Such an empathy would go a long way in the book, as well as the present Internet discourse.  I believe this is the ultimate message of this book, hidden under several layers of storytelling, but remaining with the reader long after the book is finished.

Heaven’s River is a surprisingly complex book, with several levels of storytelling, featuring superb worldbuilding, characters that are fleshed out way better than in the original trilogy, critique of our real world and blindingly obvious concepts that nobody thinks about until they are told.  It is a much more mature work than the previous three books, and this may discourage some of the fans of the original series.  Its complexity also greatly obfuscates its technical deficiencies, in particular the writing style and references to pop culture that will age very badly.  As a result, this is a very entertaining book for those who like to dig in and pay attention to the details.  I enjoyed it more than the original trilogy, and for once I am looking forward to its sequel.

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