We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor
I’ve read science fiction since I was a pre-teen and it’s still something I’d rather sit down with than any other kind of book. But as Theodore Sturgeon said: “90% of science fiction is crap.” (He continued “but then 90% of everything is crap.”)
I have had to think about what it is in science fiction that I love that makes it stand out from the rest and I think there are some essential rules. The primary key is like any other piece of fiction: It was to be well written. That means characters that are internally congruent, not likeable necessarily but don’t suddenly do something out of bounds. The writing has to be tight and the dialogue has to be realistic. Technical details, if any, have to grow out of the narrative and not be shoved in to satisfy another purpose. Perhaps most important, there should be something underlying just telling a story. It can be ethical, political, sociological, but the narrative should tackle a human (or human via alien) issue.
The best science fiction also offers a sense of wonder new interesting beings, new worlds, new technologies that bring a sense of awe.
They don’t have to do all of this at once. In fact I’d say that several favorite science fiction writers weren’t particularly interesting writers. Asimov was a king of new ideas and breadth of interests but he wasn’t a really exciting prose master. Philip K. Dick had often strange characters and odd ideas of the future (taking the rocket from Ontario, Oregon to Boise, Idaho and having trouble finding a pay phone) but the ideas he tackled were amazing. Heinlein will almost always have an old geezer who explains everything but he also took on great ideas.
All that said, it seems like I’ve been trolling the 90% recently and it’s wonderful to hit a few books that stand out in some way. This book by Taylor is one and on another day soon I’ll look at A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.
Taylor’s book is one of the funniest (did I mention authentic humor helps?) I’ve read in a few months. It deals with a software engineer who has arranged to be preserved after death and a short time later dies after being hit by a car. When he’s brought back to life it’s not as he hoped but as a disembodied entity suddenly in competition to pilot a Von Neuman probe to find a new planet to which humanity can flee. (A Von Neuman probe is a theoretical machine that can use minerals found in asteroids and planets to duplicate itself or can use those materials to expand and improve as it travels.) It’s no spoiler to say he succeeds, is launched as the artificial intelligence of the probe, and begins to create clones of himself. However, due to “quantum effects” no two Bob’s are quite a like. Each one takes on a new aspect of his personality or dreams. Some are introverted, one models himself after Homer Simpson. This helps the book touch on some issues of philophy. Is this Bob the same one who was in a human body? Are the duplicates truly him or unique individuals? Some philosophers ask if we’re even the same person, literally, that we were when we were 8 with an entirey different set of cells and experiences.
He has been launched by a theocratic government which rules part of North America. He is being persued by similar probes launched by the Empire of Brazil. Bob is a wonderful character. The writing is fresh and fun. The narrative shifts neatly back and forth among several iterations of Bob keeping the action compelling.
Taylor has his own web site and says other books are done and ready to add to what he calls the Bobiverse. If they’re as fun, interesting, and well-written as this one I’m sure I’ll be hooked on as many as he wants to produce.