If you’re not familiar with me, you’ll first need to understand that I have a bad habit of reading things I hate, and reading too much into those things that I hate. I imagine everyone does it on some small level. There is that quick hit of rage dopamine you get whenever the thing you hate does something you don’t like, and you can’t help but burn out those receptors and permanently ruin your brain chemistry. Oh, that’s just me? Well that’s okay, at least you might get some entertainment and insight into some works you may have considered reading while you watch me hurt myself. You can blame the rest of the QTL staff on allowing me this indulgence. Anyway, with its fourth book being released in physical form later this month (already out on audible), I decided I should unnecessarily and aggressively dig into why I don’t like The Bobiverse by Dennis Taylor.
The Bobiverse is a series of science fiction novels that follows one, well actually many, Bob Johanssons as they traverse the local star systems around the Sol system as Von Neumann probes. Okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. Bob Johansson was a computer programmer looking to live the rest of his life enjoying it, when he was struck by a car and killed. Decades into the future, he finds his consciousness has been uploaded into a computer by a theocratic American government, known as FAITH. If he does not comply with their demands to be loaded into a self replicating space probe, he will be deleted, so of course he goes along with their game. Unfortunately, this puts him in competition with other countries with similar programs and he’ll have to play catchup. Worlds are at stake, and honestly who could pass up the opportunity to explore the galaxy as a near immortal probe?
Interestingly, I enjoyed the first book, We Are Legion, when we read it for the site’s book club many moons ago. It had an interesting premise, and while the writing isn’t anything to brag about, Taylor kept the tone light and fun while dealing with the potential destruction of the world. I got annoyed with the sci fi pop culture references, but that’s always a problem for me (*cough cough Ready Player 1+2 cough cough*). There were interesting explorations into how the probes could replicate, and the ways in which a person with a programmer’s skill set could use those skills to their advantage if they became the computer. It tended to focus on the Bobs I was uninterested in, but the book showed a decent amount of potential for a fun, somewhat light sci-fi romp filled with pop culture references most fans would enjoy.
Bob is a generally lackluster protagonist that has moments of fun revelation. All of his emotions are attached to pop culture references of the science fiction kind, which has its charms, but is ultimately shallow. The books are written from a first person perspective from the different Bobs as they pursue their individual projects. This perspective tends to be more limiting than it is enlightening, and it often reinforces the more lackluster aspects of the Bobs’ personalities instead of highlighting their differences. I realize that in some ways, this does depend on one’s own mileage with Bob, and his many counterparts, but I also find it disconcerting that I intensely loathed Bob by the end of the series, without any internal strife within the character to point to. I recognize that it’s supposed to be fun and lighthearted, but there is a power dynamic at play in the books that goes unrecognized. So let’s unearth it and ruin people’s fun, shall we?
So, the question is: who is Bob? Well, as stated, he is a computer programmer, uploaded into a spacefaring computer, and he happens to like a lot of science fiction media. When he creates new instances of himself, there are slight variations, but not much else. They are mostly named for characters in Bob’s pantheon of “good media,” and are differentiated by aesthetic differences through the creation of their own virtual environments and which project they prefer to work on. They all reference the same media, make the same jokes and laugh at each other’s references in a weird self reinforcing bubble. The different projects offer a little bit of depth, but honestly they just feel like most science fiction fans dreams of “if I were in charge of a space project.” That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not made interesting by Bob’s internal monologuing or external conversations with his other instances.
This is exacerbated by the fact that most of his additions to the wonders of the galaxy are just bland and not insightful. Rarely do you get a full explanation of what you’re seeing through Bob’s eyes as much as you are getting what he’s feeling. On top of that, his feelings are most often expressed through pop culture references, so if you don’t have that info somewhere in your grey matter hard drive, it’s hard to relate. Even when I had that storage, I couldn’t relate to Bob, because his main emotions were usually “awe” or “frustration/anger,” with no real in between. Sure, it’s technically development, in the way a suburban McMansion neighborhood is developed, just the same idea over and over again after having the interesting contours flattened out. It creates this weird dynamic where the way the audience interacts with the world of Bobiverse is by taking cues from Bob, instead of feeling alongside Bob.
This is further compounded by the intense similarity between the Bobs, as they offer no new perspective. They offer the same emotional range, sometimes with a different sense of pop culture. This leads to a very small amount of conflict between the Bobs. Whenever there is a mild disagreement, emphasis on the word mild, on priority, they just make a new Bob, and train him to do whatever they feel is necessary, and because he’s such a “good guy,” the new Bob plays along until it’s time for them to develop their own projects. Granted, this dynamic is purported to change in the fourth installment, but the first three novels did not really foreshadow this tension. Their projects don’t really get in the way of each other’s ambitions, and while some of them do some questionable things from my perspective, they all just kind of go along with it. It’s this weird cycle of, I’ll help you do your thing, just so I can go off and do my thing, and if you need more help you can make another Bob to handle it. There is a feeling that each one is just too important to help one another out with their tasks, unless there is something in it for them. It’s not that one Bob develops a God-complex, it’s that they all have a God-complex.
So what does the first person perspective have anything to do with all of that? Well, to me, it hides the fact that in this universe, Bob is God. Instead of recognizing the power he wields over the fate of humanity, it paints him as a nice guy who just would rather enjoy his media, but everyone’s problems keep getting in his way. The only perspective you get is that of the Bobs, no one else. Sure, you get conversations between him and the corporeal humans of Earth, but since you see them through his eyes, they are whiny brats who want things from him. And since there is basically no tangible difference between the Bobs’ perspectives, they all reinforce each other, creating a bubble. This framing centers Bob first and foremost in every situation. It becomes his interests that matter, not the people he’s interacting with. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Good character stories can come from a self-centered first person narrator. But Bob feels anything but that, and the reinforcement of other Bob’s harboring similar opinions and attitudes only strengthens the feeling.
Now, a lot of what I just said is a lot of “yeah, no duh. It’s a first person perspective you ignorant reviewer,” but hear me out. The problem is not so much the point of view, so much as the lack of exterior influence on said perspective. There are no characters who really oppose Bob in a way that allows them to affect his position on one matter or another. Sure, he has to deal with the Brazilian probes, or argue with the leaders of the pockets of survivors, but he has all the power. He has the ability to choose whether people live or die, and prioritizes their chances at survival based on his emotions first, then his abilities. Characters have to acquiesce to his demands or suffer consequences. Now, there aren’t many instances in which Bob actually acts on his frustrations with the different regional leaders, but the sentiment hangs in the air because he can act on them. To pull from a well known cultural phenomenon, “it’s the implication.” Every poor interaction is filtered through Bob’s eyes, and he gets to joke with himself “wouldn’t it just be easier if I just left them there to die,” and another Bob pipes up and laughs with him as said leader is left hanging on hold while they work out a “real solution” to the problem. What makes it even more apparent is that the few people who are within Bob’s good graces don’t demand or ask anything of him. They are seen as practical, even if the only basis for that reasoning is they are a long lost descendant, or in some cases just being white. There is even a storyline in which he allows for a human woman scientist to upload her brain into a probe because she likes him. In the light that I read these stories, there is a grim practicality to the way he handles problems. If people end up being helped, well, he’s just a nice guy and no one can disparage him.
I will admit that this is a very aggressive take on the series. I had a strong reaction to reading it, and it’s stuck with me through the years. I do plan on reading Heaven’s River, and I probably won’t like it, but that’s my cross to bear. If I ruined your fun with the series, I’m not sorry. If you don’t like this reading of it, that’s cool too. All I’m saying is that if you wanted to enjoy a series about the exploration of the universe, why read a series where the main character has the only say in what should be awe inspiring to you – and bases it entirely on the author’s taste in older media. If you want a morality tale that deals with humans uplifting a nascent species of aliens, why read a book that outright references the prime directive before blasting past it without any real qualms. These books feel written in a way that means you’ll love them or you’ll hate them, as if readers themselves are trying to get in Bob’s good graces to ascend their corporeal forms. There is better science fiction out there than a boomer getting their brain uploaded into a computer to relive the glory days of 20th century science fiction.