For We Are Many by Dennis E. Taylor
I really enjoyed Dennis E. Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) last December after discovering it by accident as Audible’s Best SF of 2016. I generally tend to read fairly serious, literary, and ambitious SFF books and realized I needed a light break and We Are Legion (We Are Bob) was the perfect change of pace. The BOBIVERSE series really is a fun place to spend some time, and it is the narrative voice that makes the books worth reading. In fact, I think the audiobook narrator Ray Porter is absolutely perfect for this series, his delivery is so perfectly in tune with the breezy, snarky tone of the book that his performance deserves a star all its own. If you’re looking for a fun SF adventure featuring multiple AIs originating from the same individual (Bob, of course), Von Neumann probes exploring the galaxy, the moral dilemmas of whether to assist a primitive race as a mechanical god, encountering an implacable alien race that considers planetary systems and sentient species as raw materials and food, then you’ve come to the right place. After listening to the melancholy, deadly-serious, artistic, and brooding Viriconium by M. John Harrison, handled by the skillful British narrator Simon Vance, Ray Porter’s light, matter-of-fact, and sardonic delivery was a welcome relief.
In For We Are Many (2017), the second installment in the Bobiverse, Bob and his other AI counterparts are now scattered throughout the nearby star systems, most intent on exploration and terraforming in order to create new homes for the surviving remnants of humanity. The original Bob took a special interest in looking after a primitive but sentient race of Deltas in the Delta Pavonis system, and he spends a lot of time making sure they are not killed off by the local gorrilloids. When a new and more formidable predator shows up, he is faced with the Prime Directive dilemma popularized in Star Trek — how much do you intercede in the affairs of another sentient race, just because you like them? Is it ok to play God and take sides? Well, Bob is as human as you or I, and a very reasonable and humane person to boot, so he sets aside philosophical questions in favor of helping out his beloved Deltans, particularly the family of Archimedes, a Deltan who is especially intelligent and ambitious.
Terraforming new worlds to establish human colonies is not an easy business, and the author devotes quite a lot of time to describing the science and technology of it, but in a very understandable and reader-friendly way. Perhaps because Dennis E. Taylor is a computer programmer by trade, he knows how to describe things clearly, but I found his technical explanations not only logical, but actually interesting, and I am a liberal arts type. I’ve had to slog through many a page of technical exposition in other books (I’m thinking of Alastair Reynolds at the moment), but Taylor pitched his material at exactly the right level for me.
Meanwhile, in one of the only story elements in For We Are Many that I took strong exception to, there is a radical environmental terrorist group called VEHEMENT whose basic attitude is that the Earth would be better off without human beings, so why not just help the process by hatching various plots to kill off humanity. Of course SF is about extrapolation of current world trends, but SERIOUSLY, how many of us think that radical environmental terrorists are going to be the biggest concern in the coming decades? We have plenty of other unpleasant political trends that are happening around the world right now and I refuse to get into that debate, but I’d say there are far worse threats to humanity in some of the world’s current leaders and politics than tree huggers gone wild. So I’d have to voice my displeasure with Taylor’s choice of villains here, and the satire is so exaggerated as to lack any conviction. Okay, stepping off soap-box now.
The terraforming story on Vulcan involves a bit of a love story for one of the Bob AIs, something I wasn’t expecting. It’s not overdone, and it is a natural issue to arise when immortal AI personalities interact with humans, though some dismissively label them “ephemerals.” I actually found this storyline quite moving, which was an added bonus from a book where I was mostly expecting light-hearted space adventure.
Finally, we have the implacable advanced alien race that likes to turn star systems into raw materials, and treats sentient beings as food. Having read Alastair Reynolds’ REVELATION SPACE series just last year, this reminded me of that series’ unstoppable alien machine race, so much so that I wondered if Taylor wasn’t making a bit of fun of it, but since he treats them as a serious threat, I don’t think that was his intention. In any case, these aliens are indeed bad-asses and painfully lacking in any sense of humor, so fighting them to save humanity is no mean feat. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that we will have to wait for the next installment to find out what happens with them. Finally, did I mention that the Audible version of For We Are Many is only $4.99 on Amazon and adding the Audible narration is only an extra $1.99? That is incredible value for the money, so go out and get it before they decide to hike the price!
I love the Bobs!