We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor
This seems to be a thing these days. Breezy, snarky SF stories by first-time authors that promote their own work, capture a lot of positive word-of-mouth and become very popular without major publisher help initially. I’m thinking of Andy Weir’s The Martian, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Basically, these books are a whole lot of fun, drop liberal 1980s geek references, tell an exciting tale, and reject the dark and grim cyberpunk futures exemplified by William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, etc. Don’t get me wrong, those are all excellent books too, but man, are they depressing! After listening to five Reynolds audiobooks in quick succession, I really needed something light and fun, and I happened to see Dennis E. Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (2016) mentioned as one of Audible’s Best SF of 2016, so on a lark I picked it up.
It’s a very simple story. Bob Johansson is a young Internet entrepreneur who has just sold his successful business to a larger competitor. Flush with cash, he arranges for his body to be put in cryogenic storage when he dies as an insurance policy, and on the way to a SF convention he gets distracted crossing the street and…
Wakes up 117 years later in a repressive future society that somewhat reminded me of Woody Allen’s classic SF spoof Sleeper (1973). We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is nothing if not topical — Taylor had me laughing out loud in painful acknowledgement with this succinct description of the future US theocracy. Obviously very different from our current world, thankfully…
In 2036, the USA elected an over-the-top, unapologetic fundamentalist president named Andrew Handel. Yes, that Handel. During his term, he tried to ban election of non-Christians to any public post, and tried to remove the constitutional separation between church and state. He was nominated, supported, and elected based on his religious views, rather than on his political or fiscal expertise. And of course, he appointed persons of similar persuasion to every post he could manage, in some cases blatantly ignoring laws and procedures. He and his cronies rammed through far-right policies with no thought for consequences. In a number of cases, when challenged on the results, he declared that God would not allow their just cause to fail. He eventually brought the USA to its knees in an economic collapse that made the 2008 recession look like a picnic in the park.
Anyway, that is just laying the groundwork for the main part of the story, which is that Bob is now a bodiless AI, or replicant, that has been revived along with several other candidates for an urgent project by one faction of the current US government to seed the stars for humanity while competing with other rival nations. It turns out that most AIs turn insane when they understand their new situation, but Bob seems to have a better temperament for accepting his new existence as an AI that essentially controls a collection of servitors, etc. The choice is elegant — either accept the assignment to pilot a fleet of Von Neumann machines to seed new stars with colonies, or be shut off permanently.
Bob’s no-nonsense, self-deprecating internal monologue is the backbone of this enjoyable tale, very much like Mark Watney in The Martian. He always has a quip for each occasion, a super-rational and creative engineering mind, and indefatigable optimism no matter the circumstances. If you like that style of story, you’ll be in good hands, and the audiobook narration by Ray Porter is excellent. I found myself smiling at Bob’s one-liners and refusal to be dragged down by setbacks. He is a character any reader can root for.
The bulk of the book involves Bob’s adventures escaping the ploys of other nation-states back on Earth, hostile rival AIs tasked with the same mission, and then the very existential struggle of Bob coming to terms with cloning himself into a multitude of Bobs, hence the book’s title We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Bob’s chats and debates with his other alter-egos are hilarious and probably the best part of the book. It also makes the book less claustrophobic than The Martian, because the other Bobs do have distinct character variations, essentially different aspects of the original Bob’s persona. They choose names for themselves like Riker, Homer, Garfield, etc., so we get plenty of 80s geek references just like Ready Player One.
The final third of We Are Legion (We Are Bob) tells the adventures of Bob and his alter-egos as they encounter a more primitive species of humanoid aliens and play a bit of God trying to favor one group over another, much like a Star Trek scenario (you know, the Prime Directive and all that). The main mechanism that drives the engineering technology is the ability to use 3D printers to build anything with the right raw materials from asteroids and planets, so Bob has to decide between replicating himself, building colony ships for Earth’s survivors, and building other 3D printers. Imagine the SF version of “For my third wish I wish for unlimited wishes.” This is clearly intended as the opening salvo of an ongoing SF series, since Taylor can take Bob’s adventures in any direction he wants. If you are a fan of the books mentioned in this review, I think you’ll definitely enjoy the ride.
This is a lot of fun!