Behind the Bobo

Following in the tradition of behind-the-scenes posts like The Making of Idiot’s Mask, I invite you now to take a look at the genesis of my most recent serialization effort, Bobo, in which I will share my originating ideas, my thoughts on the themes in the story, and even some “deleted scenes” that didn’t end up in the final novella.

Also: Bobo is available right now in every e-book flavour under the sun, including but not limited to Kindle and Nook or Kobo or iOS or Sony and Palm, and even as a good old fashioned PDF. ($3)

Bobo for President

“If thou openest not the gate to let me enter, I will break the door, I will wrench the lock, I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors. I will bring up the dead to eat the living. And the dead will outnumber the living.” – Ishtar in the Underworld, Babylonian Myth

Bobo is the story of a simple geriatric care robot who understands the entire world through the narrow prism of his life-long function. That understanding becomes perverse when Bobo mixes modern hardware with his ancient parts, amplifying his powers by orders of magnitude but his wisdom not at all.

It didn’t start out that way, though.

Unlike some of my more rigourously planned stories, Bobo was nothing more than a distracting daydream I used to get me through a stressful time. I imagined it as a movie, the opening credits running over shallow depth-of-field shots of Bobo in happy service at a retirement home in the not-too-distant future, and the climax tilting on the sudden expression of Bobo’s physical power after enduring many episodes of prejudice, hardship and very rough treatment at the hands of variously morally-impaired human beings. Basically a dumb action movie with slick special effects and a fair shake of ultraviolence.

(I was thinking about retirement home robots a lot because currently I am one. For months my family has been providing palliative care at home for a slowly dying relative with a progressive neurological disease. The process is every bit as romantic and hilarious as you’ve heard.)

I starting writing some of it down as a cathartic exercise. I hoped doing so would flush the idea from my mind and limber me up for my next actual writing project, whatever that would be. However, the narrative soon acquired a flavour all its own and it sucked me right in. I came to understand that I had no choice but to see Bobo through.

The home bought twenty-seven robots from the hardware store, but only one of them would live forever. Since the robots were covered under warranty for just thirty-six months this represented an exceptional value. -Bobo, Chapter 1

How would Bobo live forever? He would change something fundamental about the treatment of robots on his world. He would be a plucky underdog who persevered through all sorts of adversity in order to prove once and for all that his subjective experience of the world was sufficiently nuanced and complex to qualify him as a genuine person.

But then I thought, “Shit. That’s nothing but a warmed over Johnny-Five.”

It’s no secret that robot fiction of that particular stripe is predicated on a civil rights metaphor in which the robot is understood to share a plight comparable with American black people in the twentieth-century, having a dream and so on.

That’s not really my story to tell. I’m neither American nor black, nor a member of any other systemically marginalized group. I’m not gay like C-3P0, or handicapped like Bumblebee, or developmentally delayed like Wall-E.

However I have been very dutiful.

After a while Finnegan asked Bobo if Bobo would ever leave him and go away and never come back. “No,” said Bobo. “Bobo will wait until Finnegan is elderly, and then Bobo will accompany him to an assisted-living complex.” Bobo believed his plan was foolproof, though he confessed some dismay at the apparent reluctance of his charge to become visibly more geriatric. “You goine stay wif me my whole life?” asked Finnegan, eyes on the pond. “Yes,” said Bobo. After a pause he added, “How long does Finnegan estimate his life will be?” Finnegan shrugged. “A million years?” -Deleted passage

Innocence. It’s a cute premise, but I didn’t want to have a cybernetic Forest Gump on my hands. I knew whatever form it took, in order to speak to the feelings that inspired it the story would have to have a certain darkness. Could clichéd innocence be turned on its head?

“Human beings die or are killed, whereas Bobo can only be deactivated or destroyed,” clarified Bobo. “Why?” asked the child. “Because Bobo is not alive,” said Bobo. “Yeah you is. Alive sis talking and tinking, and being happy or sad,” said Finnegan. “Bobo is never happy or sad, Finnegan.” The child looked at him. “Isn’t you happy being friends wif me?” he asked. “No,” said Bobo. The child cried. -Deleted passage

One of the central difficulties of turning a violent daydream about a robot going smashie-smashie into a story worth reading had been finding a way to justify the carnage. So I decided that I wouldn’t ultimately justify Bobo’s rampage. Instead of being born of emotion, it could be a series of acts born out of a sense of duty — but a duty misunderstood.

Innocence could become noble simplicity, but it could also go someplace else: a dedication to a mistaken premise, with robotic intensity.

Bobo could be wrong. Bobo could be bad.

The steward fell, eyes going dark. Once down the steward did not stir again. Bobo leaned aside and took gentle hold of the child’s hand. Together they walked off through the grass. -Deleted passage

You know me. I like rhymes, especially structural ones. So if Bobo was going to proceed with a mistaken premise (that the world is essentially comparable to a retirement home) perhaps the reader should, as well. Due to the history of the genre, the default assumption was obvious: that a robotic protagonist, being not possessed of the human temptation to sin, is inherently noble and worthy of the reader’s empathy.

I’m willing to bet many of you nailed it right here:

“This unit is now trapped forever,” said the bulldozer. Bobo nodded in a friendly way. “Well, so long,” he said as he turned and started the long climb out. -Bobo, Chapter 8

The key issue here is that none of the forces that mitigate our human propensity for sin are available to Bobo. Bobo is an adaptive mimic surrounded by human beings behaving badly. Why should he not sin? What would stop him? Bobo does as he sees, with every ounce of it warped through a very narrow lens shaped by his function.

In contrast, Zorannic robots have been culled from a larger pool by criteria designed by Zoran. A sense of purpose has been specified in them, and from that a carefully built concept of right and wrong. Bobo has no sense of right and wrong at all, because nobody anticipated appliances being in the position of making moral choices.

“Life was very orderly in the home,” said Bobo. “For example, spaghetti was always served on Tuesday and algae pie on Wednesday. Thursday was garbage day.” -Bobo, Chapter 13

The thing is, being a nurse of any kind involves a constant littany of ethics-based decision making. And Bobo, though an appliance, was also a kind of nurse. So he goes forth into the world believing he has a system for distinguishing states that are more desirable from states that are less desirable, and a policy for evaluating that. He is not seeking to understand rightness and wrongness, like say The Iron Giant — Bobo never doubted himself in that regard.

There might be a temptation to label Bobo’s character amoral but that isn’t true: he’s just massively incorrect. “Amorality” is a cop out. Bobo is bad. He’s bad because he’s sure.

And his role models aren’t equipped to set him straight.

John is vain and irresponsible. Oscar is misogynistic, dishonest and greedy for power. Dick is obsessive and intemperant. Ishtari Julia Roboticist is vindictive and remorseless. Everywhere he goes Bobo sees humans in dereliction of their moral or professional duties when distracted or driven by mammal hungers.

“How can they kill me to demonstrate that killing is wrong?” -Bobo, Chapter 17

If Bobo turned out better than them it would have been a trite story indeed — and also difficult to swallow. His examples were reprehensible.

Underfoot marched a steady procession of dildos and toothbrushes.The traffic pylons wore hats. Short order chefs with spatulas for hands bent down so that clothes horses could straighten their ties. Cranes wore socks, and whole legions of vacuum cleaners wafted with shawls. -Bobo, Chapter 22

Moral passion play aside, Bobo was also a story that hinged on dramatic if demented images/passages in which either humans were described using language usually reserved for inanimate objects, or inanimate objects were portrayed in terms of biological life. This juxtaposition (what’s a cheaper word for that concept?) highlighted, I felt, the indignity of the humans and the pretensions of dignity Bobo infused in the objects he controlled.

The bank teller made an awkward face at Bobo and the electric prostitute, the flesh suffusing with brightness in the infrared. So too did her armpits begin to glow. Bobo knew her level of apprehension had suddenly skyrocketed. The police investigation into his activities had progressed further than he had modeled and initiated a sub-routine in the teller’s adrenal gland. “I’m so sorry,” the teller said again, “but I have to summon the police. It’s policy.” Bobo nodded in an understanding way, then picked up the prostitute and threw it at the teller. The teller crumpled under the flying hardware. She became wet and broken and loud. -Deleted passage

In the finished novella he gathered that control quietly, but in my first crack at the story his distributed nature was front and centre:

Bobo walked down the broad avenue in his shining red and white body, the works in his legs smooth and coordinated and clever. The soles of his feet transmitted a wealth of information about tiny bits of gravel and a subtle incline to the east. His nose was capable of discerning individual sources from the panoply of intermixing smells wafting out of restaurants. His new eyes were equipped with a robust optical zoom. Bobo bathed in sensory data. His experience moved beyond the borders of the modern hardware without his notice. Bobo found himself seeing through the eyes of a street-cleaning crew as they scrubbed the gutters, and then he saw the swirling city from above as he rode within the pea-sized brain of a traffic monitor. Bobo noted that several blocks had been cordoned off by the military, dust and smoke still drifting up into the blue sky. A soldier ate his lunch while sitting atop the head of a parked tank. He looked up at Bobo and watched him fly by. As he wandered through a market Bobo insinuated himself into freeway signals and train switches, into corporate billing systems and automated menus. He became every page in parliament and a hundred taxis. He was a sump-pump, a trash compactor, a diaphanous cloud of vaccine nanobots, an adaptive scaffolding system enwrapped around a church. He was fifty thousand domestics. He was everywhere. Bobo became the city. He was a dishwasher, and then an elevator. He jumped from a water reservoir control complex into a big rig truck. He housed himself across seven lawnmowers for a moment before taking the opportunity to slip into a very expensive butler in the midst of serving tea to his effete master. Bobo poured hot tea into the man’s lap. The man howled. “Bobo apologizes,” he said, offering the man a napkin from the service tray beside him. -Deleted passage

In the end I felt this robbed the plot of tension, because wondering what everyone else is wondering about in a story helps keep the momentum, I think, even if you think you already know the answer.

In an alternate edit Bobo befriended a young boy named Finnegan who was the grandson of the sitting planetary prime minister, and whose mother was a drug-addicted boor. The problem there was that I couldn’t make the story as cruel as I’d wanted it, because I couldn’t stand to see the damn kid get hurt.

Bobo watched her fall. She struck the terrace awkwardly. Her forearms bent. She tried to raise her bent arms to protect herself as a horde of revolutionaries fell upon her. They swung hammers and axes and crowbars, dissociating her parts and randomizing their structure. Bobo looked back at Finnegan. “Does Finnegan have additional mothers?” Finnegan didn’t say anything. The room shook as revolutionaries pounded the door. The wardrobe blocking the door creaked and shifted. Plaster rained from the ceiling. “Prepare yourself for combat,” Bobo warned the child. -Deleted passage

Finally, I think the most controversial bit of Bobo may have been the deus ex machina ending, which I admit seemed less jarring to me than to many of you because I forget sometimes that I’m the only one who knows what happens in the last few chapters of The Secret Mathematic, which must be awfully confusing for you from time to time. That is a problem that will be resolved soon. I’ll tell you quite frankly that earlier this very week the device I’ve been looking for to make the climax of TSM really cook finally dawned on me. My story production (and other production) schedule is very crammed right now, but fans of the serial should rest assured that the conclusion inches along sentence by sentence whenever I can find a crack, and it won’t be long before we can all enjoy it together.

Also, if you missed it last week here is an incredibly awkward, meandering, self-contradictory, motor-mouth interview with me on the 2012 Writers Alive podcast. It’s a good series, I just wasn’t in the right state of mind for the call. People were slowly dying around me, and also other distracting things.

Oh, and well I’m yammering, I might as well mention that I have a story coming up in (I think) the next issue of Stupefying Stories, an electronic publication from America of science-fiction anthologies. I’ll link the issue when it’s ripe.

Thanks for reading, folks.

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One Comment

  1. Tom says:

    Interesting paths of what might have been with Bobo.

    I’ve been following it as chapters were posted, and it took a few twists I wasn’t expecting. I can see how the tone would have changed dramatically if the reader was let in too early on the omnicient nature of Bobo’s co-opting of other machines It was pretty well telegraphed the planet would be taken over in short order.. even if the characters were clueless about the fact.

    Well done.

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