Books You Should Read: “We Are Legion (We Are Bob)”

Very few times in my life have I read a novel that keeps me reading right on through and I long to get to the end of it and find out what happens. “We Are Legion (We Are Bob)” by Dennis E. Taylor is such a novel. Now, in full disclosure, I didn’t read the novel. I bought the audiobook from Audible. Still, it was great listening to it, and I sometimes found myself sitting in the driveway to finish a chapter or two before I went inside the house.

The main character, Bob, was a successful software engineer in the early 21st century. After he comes into a lot of money, he decides to go ahead and buy a spot at one of those “cryogenic reanimation” companies that will freeze you at the moment of your death in the hopes that you can be reanimated when there’s a cure for what killed you. Bob is an atheist, but he still longs for everlasting life. (Don’t we all?) As it turns out, Bob gets killed shortly after signing the papers to be frozen.

Bob is woken up a century later. He is no longer a biological entity. Heck, he might not even be Bob. See, his brain has been downloaded into a computer mainframe. Things have happened in the United States that render Bob a piece of property of the State, but there is a chance that he can “live” in that new place. If he can win a competition to be in control of a new “von Neumann probe” that will be sent into space, he might just get to achieve that everlasting life.

What is a von Neumann probe? It’s a space probe that gets sent out of the Solar System and into the stars. Once at a new location, it uses that new location’s raw materials to replicate itself and anything it needs. Then that new probe sets off in a different direction, repeating the process. After a while, you have a bunch of probes all over the galaxy, and you set humanity’s footprint beyond our planet.

The State for which Bob works is not the only one going into space. There are other world powers trying to colonize the galaxy and keep other competitors out of the running. Bob’s experience as a software engineer allows him to win the competition against other “replicants” (the word for people woken from frozen sleep and downloaded into a computer). He is put on a von Neumann probe and sent on his way…

I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but I will tell you that Bob makes it to another star system and he does start replicating. By the end of the novel, we have several Bobs on several star systems on several adventures. A pair of the Bobs return to the Solar System and find a whole set of problems there. Another Bob goes to a star system over 20 lightyears from Earth, and he finds what will probably be the “big bad” of the second book.

Oh, yes, there’s a second book. In fact, I got the feeling that the author had a really big story in mind that had to be cut into at least two. That doesn’t mean that the first book is not satisfying and entertaining alone. It is, and it does a great job of leaving you wanting more.

There are several themes that run through the novel, and the author does a phenomenal job of laying them out simply and allowing you to think a little bit about them on your own. For example, what does it mean to be immortal if your body is gone and all that is left is your mind? And what if that’s not really you, but a copy of you? Are you still you?

Other themes include the ethics of First Contact with an alien species. If you were to arrive at a planet where intelligent life is just starting out (like us in the Stone Age), would you help that intelligent life against a predator? Would you teach them what you know? Would you contaminate their culture/civilization?

Another theme is saving humanity from its own belligerence. Shortly after Bob leaves, something happens between the countries of Earth that endangers all of humanity. When two of the Bobs return to check in on humanity, they are faced with the decision to help humanity survive or just continue to perpetuate a species that seems hell bent on destroying itself.

If you’re into science fiction, space exploration, artificial intelligence, and a little bit of sociology, you’ll love this book and its sequel. The author does a great job of sprinkling in humor to keep the mood light. Discussions about technical concepts that are not too complicated for laypeople to understand. The story, although told from different Bobs’ perspectives, moves along well and you know exactly what Bob you’re following and where.

I highly recommend this novel (and its sequel) for some light reading over the summer. It takes about 8 hours per novel via Audible, so it probably is not a long read in book form. If you’re commuting a couple of hours a day, this novel will make it go by faster. If you’re laying out on the beach, this book will help you ignore the crowd. And, who knows, you might learn something in the process.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen