Bobiverse series, by Dennis E Taylor

>> Tuesday, August 07, 2018

This trilogy by Dennis E Taylor feels like a long story cut into 3 chunks, so much so that I started the second and third books as soon as I'd finished the previous ones, which I don't usually do. So it probably makes more sense to review them together.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) starts in the present day. Bob Johansson is looking forward to the rest of his life. He has just sold his software company and is now financially very comfortable, enough that he doesn't need to work any longer. One of the first things he does with his money is to sign up with a cryogenics company to preserve his head when he dies. The idea is that once technology has progressed enough, he'll be brought back to life and given a new body.

Bob thought this cryogenic freezing would happen many decades later, but a freak car accident means that the contract is triggered a lot sooner than he expected. Next thing he knows, he's being woken up over a century later, and in a very different world. Bob has not been given a new body. In fact, he's not considered a person at all by the theocratic government that has taken over what was the US. The whole cryogenic preservation thing is considered an aberration and those like Bob are now property of the state.

In Bob's case, the government is intending to use him as part of a project to colonise space. His consciousness has been uploaded to a computer matrix and he's now an artificial intelligence meant to control a von Neumann probe (more info here, but the basic idea is that this is a spaceship that will use raw materials in other galaxies to replicate itself, then those replicas will do the same further away, and so would theirs, and so on, till there are enough that they can explore a hell of a big territory). Turns out the international geopolitical situation has got pretty tense, and several superpowers are competing to be the first out to claim new habitable worlds (the environmental situation has got pretty bad as well). Bob is in a bit of a dicey situation. If he agrees, he's painting a great big target on his "back", as the other superpowers will be trying very hard to destroy his probe, and consequently, him. If he refuses, then the government will just turn him off and destroy him. So he agrees.

And thus starts the adventure. Bob, and soon his replicas and theirs (all of whom take on different names inspired by pop culture works the original Bob enjoyed, and 90% of which I didn't recognise), explore the universe, face danger from rival probes, encounter other civilisations, come up with a plan to save humanity, and cope with their nature.

So that's the setup. What the books are like is maybe a bit harder to describe. On one hand, it's relatively "hard" science fiction, in that Taylor geeks out on the science quite a bit. I'm sure there's a bit of handwaving in there, but if there is, it's at a point where I was either lost or my eyes had glazed over. Because the detail on the science was maybe a little bit more than I like. Just a little; definitely not enough to put me off the book.

At the same time, there is quite a bit of humour. So, the title of the first one, "We Are Legion (We Are Bob)"? That's a good summary of the tone. It's irreverent and... well, I think a good description would be "dad humour". It's also not at all mean-spirited and quite gentle. I liked the tone very much.

But it's not all fun and games and science. The series is also concerned with exploring some very interesting concepts, such as what makes an individual an individual, the consequences of immortality on a being's worldview and whether what's basically an artificial intelligence can be just as much a person as a biological human. It's not done in a lot of depth (no one sits down and expounds on it, it's more demonstrated by what is going on), but it's thought-provoking and very interesting, particularly seeing how as the Bobs get more and more degrees further away from Bob-1, they change.

The book has a very long time-span, so it doesn't really get too deeply into the character development. But there's still a fair bit of emotion, and a lot of it relates to a basically immortal being caring about humans, who are, as some of the Bobs start calling them, "ephemerals". I thought that was well done.

The series wasn't perfect. My main issue was that I got a bit confused with all the different Bobs and systems. Each chapter starts by listing the name of the Bob and where they are and when, which you'd think would help. But half the time I'd go "Huh, so which one was this one, and what was going on here?". To be fair, this was particularly a problem in book 2, For We Are Many. In book 1 there are fewer Bobs and locations, so it was easier to keep track, and in book 3, All These Worlds, it felt like the focus was narrowed a bit and things were more manageable.

And by the way, book 2 was definitely the weakest. In addition to (because of?) the confusion, it had what felt like a really saggy middle. Whereas I tore through books 1 and 3, I actually sort of abandoned book 2 for a few weeks there in the middle. I'd pick it up and read one chapter (they're mostly very short), but without it grabbing me, and then put it down and not feel the need to pick it up again. I still wanted to finish it, so I pushed through and then closer to the end it started picking up again. But yeah, it took some effort.

Finally, the other thing I disliked was the way one of the probes was depicted. So, in the world where Bob wakes up, one of the big superpowers is the Brazilian Empire. They are also competing in the space race, and Bob later encounters a Brazilian probe also controlled by an AI which, just like Bob, is actually a "downloaded" human being, in this case a military man called Ernesto Medeiros. Throughout the series they have several extremely hostile encounters. And they are hostile basically because Medeiros is portrayed as insanely aggressive and irrational, chauvinistic and hot-headed. At one point the Bobs discuss how the probe (then engaged in attacking a colony), just wants to smash things. "It seems to be a theme with the Brazilian probes, Gar. I don't know if that's a cultural thing...". Yeah, cheers for that. Bit of a problematic portrayal of Latin Americans, and I couldn't help but take it a little bit personally.

This is a relatively small part of the book, though, so I was able to slide over it. On the whole, this was really good fun!

We Are Legion (We Are Bob): B+

For We Are Many: B-

All These Worlds: B+

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