Dennis E Taylor is the author of the Bobiverse, one of my guilty pleasure reads. I say pleasure because the books relax me and I gobble them like popcorn, always curious what new adventure is going to come bubbling down the pipe. I say guilty because… they’re not very good. They’re simplistic, naive, and they commit a cardinal sin of treating the main character, Bob, as being able to do anything with enough time and resources (Batman-style) because he’s a tech genius. As someone who works in tech, lemme tell you that this attitude is a problem, not a solution, and it’s annoying to see it glorified on page.
But I’ve bought every Bobiverse book and listened to it immediately and enjoyed myself immensely, so of course I bought Outland and gobbled it right up. Outland solves that tech genius problem right away by having a Scooby Gang style cast of characters. It’s not one lone genius in a space probe flawlessly teaching himself everything from advanced biology to how to run a government, it’s a group of college students collaborating, growing their colony, and solving problems with limited resources. This book would make a great video game a la Subnautica or Terraria.
Without giving away too many spoilers, the main characters find an alternate earth on a timeline where humans never evolved, leaving everything somewhat familiar but intensely wild. I love this kind of fantasy. One of my existential dreads as a citizen of the 21st century is the loss of wildness, and how insidious that is. If we had a Thanos Snap that brought biomass back to pre-industrial levels alongside us humans, I think even biologists would be surprised at the density, bugs, animals, and noisiness. Outland addresses this and makes it feel like that untouched wild wilderness is real, and I enjoyed that fantasy.
From there it gets into the familiar Dennis E Taylor Pollyanna treatment of brutal and complex issues. Probably my biggest problem with his writing is how seldom the main characters are wrong, and how easy it is to recover from when they are. The characters are always able to find a technology solution, which I don’t have too much a problem with because that’s the point of the writing: engineering porn, The Martian style. They’re also however always able to find a people solution, and I can’t decide how I feel about this.
My experience of post-apocalyptic fiction has never recovered from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That seemed like the most realistic depiction of longterm survival of a civilization-ending event ever put to the page, and every last page of it is miserable. Maybe I’ll reread that so I can revisit it through Cannonball because hooboy do I have thoughts, but suffice it to say, people are the real monsters, and the monsters are worse than we could ever imagine. This is what Taylor fails to touch on, and he doesn’t necessarily need to touch it, his writing is doing a different thing, but it definitely makes me roll my eyes and say “yeah sure” at several points in his writing.
All the same, pick up Outland if you like fun fiction of intrepid people surviving disasters with their wits. Don’t pick up The Road if you ever want to be able to sleep again.