by Dennis E. Taylor
Okay. Sci-fi, clearly, if the book cover didn’t clue you in. Heaven’s River is the fourth book of a series written by Dennis E Taylor. Given I haven’t written any reviews of his previous series, this’ll be a bit of an overall review of the series that’ll dive into a more detailed review of the later book.
Note: [MILD SPOILERS!]
I can’t really talk about the series without giving away mild spoilers for the first book. To be fair, I think the very title of the first book is about the level of spoilers I’ll reveal 1. But still, they are plot points, and it’s almost impossible to talk about the series without them. If you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, I suggest you just go ahead and pick up the first book.
Clearly, I like the books; I’ve read the whole series to date. If you like Sci-fi and ships, and some weird premises, this a good book to read.
I usual, I spent time trying to figure out why I like this series. As an aspiring writer, I want to be able to identify the core elements that draw me in and, I hope, will draw others in in my own writing. So as I read this latest installment, I paid close attention to what areas I found myself engaged in. What I discovered is something I’m tempted to call it’s own kind of sub-genre:
The Engineer’s Dilemma.
The engineer’s dilemma is a deceptively simple draw: there is a problem and it needs to be solved. Describe the problem in absurd detail, attach some stakes, insert a clever protagonist, and you have a recipe that will…
Wait, does this sound boring? Cause even as I type it, I feel like this would be boring. People don’t want to read about other people solving technical problems, do they? I wouldn’t think so. Even though I happen to know I like this kind of book, I have found it best not to assume everyone is like me.
This isn’t a review of The Martian, clearly, but it does represent a kind of gold standard for these kinds of book, or it does in my mind, at least. Stakes in The Martian are high, like, “will I be alive in the next ten minutes” high, and I’m tempted to say this is the most important factor, but no, I won’t cause I don’t believe it. Essential, yes, and high stakes do draw me in, but in the end, the sheer delight in seeing a problem solved with cleverness, wit, and good old-fashioned knowledge is really what kept those pages turning. Even when there was no current problem, I knew there would be and just beyond the horizon would be an interesting solution I hadn’t thought of.
And here’s a thing contrary to most writing advice: the more detail, the better. Don’t just show, don’t just tell, explain the ever-living-shit out that problem. Make it feel real, intractable, impossible to overcome. And now, make it so the protagonist must solve it within ten minutes or they die.
The Bobiverse is very much a series of engineering dilemmas. But unlike The Martian, Bobiverse starts off with a very… out-there premise.
Bob, our protagonist, wakes up in a rocket, his mind uploaded to be the core software of a von Neumann probe 3. Humanity hasn’t figured out an AI sophisticated enough to handle the task, but they can scan a brain and upload that instead. Add in a future where humanity is at war (far-fetched, I know) and on the brink of killing each other off and… well, what could go wrong?
Needless to say, there are many dilemmas to be solved, which I won’t go into because spoilers, but on the whole I found them satisfying enough to keep reading. The sci-fi premise also practically invites discussion of post-humanism, metaphysics, and philosophy, and Dennis has no quarrels exploring them. Again, also stuff I like.
The stakes are not high in these books, which I know seems counter to the premise I literally just detailed. Or, perhaps I should say there are high stakes, but not immediate stakes. There’s very little sense that the problem needs to be solved right this instant.
This is what almost convinced me that stakes aren’t important to engineering dilemmas. They need to be there — the protagonist can’t be able to just “walk away” — but you don’t have to make it so the protagonist dies in the next five minutes or else.
I could almost say any stake would work. It took me all the way to the fourth book to realize why that’s wrong. The Bobiverse doesn’t have much tension, but the problems and how the protagonist overcomes them were interesting enough to draw me through three books. About half way through the fourth book, though, I began to wish for more.
Heaven’s River is a long book. Were the other books this long? I dunno. They never struck me as long, but that could easily be attributed to how engrossed I was. I could check page counts but honestly, I don’t really care and I’m too lazy to look it up.
What matters is how the book felt. When it starts to feel long, I suspect something went wrong 4. In this case, I believe (just a theory) that the author was trying to add tension: there’s trouble brewing in the Bobiverse, a friend is danger, [redacted] must be be infiltrated, and there’s hints that it’s all connected.
Aaaand, I struggled to care. The individual elements of the story should have worked — he’d certainly thrown in all the right ingredients — and yet there was this disconnect in my interest. By far, the most tension was generated in the troubled Bobiverse. At the same time, the most interesting problems (and story in general) was to be found in the infiltration story line. Yet those two were so distant from each other that for most of the story they might was well been two different books. Even where they intersected, the problems it caused were post-facto. Never did the issues of the Bobiverse create additional tension in the infiltration story and, indeed, they actually removed an aspect of the infiltration I was really enjoying: (spoiler) 5.
And finally, I couldn’t remember who the “friend” in trouble actually was. The name sounded familiar and I garnered from context the initial situation, but I couldn’t actually recall him. Also, I wasn’t about to back and read the other books just to find out because… I didn’t care.
This brings me to a particular thorny problem inherent in the very plot devices the author is using:
- The book is told from the first person perspective.
- The story shifts perspective between the “Bawbs”.
The results in a story that feels like it has only one character in it, even if that character essentially interacts with multiple versions of himself.
Part of the problem is reader expectation. The vast majority of first-person books maintain a single perspective. If the perspective shifts, the author inevitably switches to the third, making the transition very obvious. This is so consistent I’m tempted to view it as one of those rules writer’s like to make for themselves.
This expectation of a single first-person perspective naturally colors how we consume a first person novel. Ergo, no matter how you name your varied protagonists, they’ll all end up feeling like the same person unless the author expends the extra effort needed to distinguish them.
Dennis does not expend that effort.
It’s possible, maybe even likely, he didn’t want to. Perhaps he wished for them to all feel the same. If so, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. After all, it gives even more opportunities to put our protagonist(s?) in situations that needs to be resolved, and so far as engineering dilemmas go, they don’t need to have heavy character arcs.
But this plot device makes it very hard to create real tension in the individual character. Do we care if Bob or Bill or Will or Howard or [insert generic name here] actually makes it? They might care, sure, but if catastrophe occurs, the reader will only experience a shift in perspective to another character that feels absolutely the same to the reader.
This de-fangs a large number of plot devices traditionally used to racket up the tension. This is made worse when the protagonist is often not in any real danger at all due to the magics of subspace-like instant communication over long distances. Wise for the Bawbs, not so much for scene tension.
It’s not impossible, though. One of the reasons the “threat” inside the Bobiverse worked so well in Heaven’s River is precisely because the Bobiverse felt like it’s own character. I’m tempted to say that the Bobiverse is a better and more fleshed out character than even the individual Bawbs.
I felt that tension. It just didn’t tie back to the individual Bob arcs in a way that mattered. When it came to the individual characters, the Bobiverse tension felt like little more than a plot device even though it was generating an overall tension that felt critical and important.
For me personally, this disconnect between immediate character tension, and the overall story tension is an important lesson in my own writing. I have something of a similar problem. I have two characters that don’t interact for much of the book, but over time tension is built between them as they become each other’s antagonists. This arcing character development is important and, arguably, the bigger part of the story. However, I’m realizing that I can’t use it to carry each individual story. Those individual threads must be compelling enough to carry themselves. If not, then I’ve failed my goal, no matter how epic the arching plot may be.
Do I recommend this book? Yes. All books have hole and issues, even if it just came down to personal preference. But while the Bobiverse is starting to feel a bit thin for me, it’s not yet to that place where I don’t want to read the next book in the series.
“We are Bob” can only have so many explanations, and this is not a book on psychosis. ↩
Yes, yes. Okay, and a movie that may or may not have had a famous actor in it. ↩
A space-faring vehicle designed to replicate itself over and over in order to accomplish far-fetched tasks like, for instance, terraforming a planet. ↩
Badum bum. ↩
The group dynamics. Initially, there are four people involved in the infiltration, but the Bobiverse problem removed all but one. Thing is, I was really enjoying the group dynamics. In one sense, removing the other three made the problems harder, but I also felt a bit of disappointment as the other three characters were suddenly demoted into the background. ↩