I like Bob. I’ve been swimming with him in Master’s Swim Club for four or five years. He is always on time, always ready to work, and has the enviable ability–the result of decades as an accountant–of being able to keep track of yardage and time sets. He is also the only one who reliably plays The Pun Game with me, until I laugh so hard I can’t swim. He is a genuinely nice guy, and always up for a (dark) beer after practice. But you have to be careful about sitting with him when you drink that beer, because when he gets going on a story, and even with alcohol, it’ll be enough to put you to sleep. You can tell he means to be interesting, but the dry delivery and too many irrelevant details leave people glassy-eyed.
We Are Legion is definitely a Bob story. The narrator–Bob–is an engineer who as been cryogenically preserved and transferred into an A.I. Taylor has captured the voice of an analyst perfectly. Here’s Bob during one of those times he is unaware his audience’s eyes are glazing over:
“We would then coast the rest of the way to the area of the Brazilian autofactory at close to 13% of the speed of light, separated by a few minutes to allow a staggered attack. At that speed, there would be no turning around for a second pass in any reasonable time. It took a week to get out to 50 AU, but only five days of straight acceleration to get into the Alpha Centauri A system. At a predetermined point, I ejected two scouts forward using the rail gun.”
Sometimes Bob is funny, particularly in the one-liner kind of way:
“I recognized Dr. Landers’ voice. The word was “missiles.” Um. Ways in which a sentence beginning with the word “missiles” could be a good thing… Nope. I got nuthin’.”
“It blew me away that almost two hundred years after Shatner first famously didn’t actually say, “Beam me up, Scotty,” people still knew Star Trek. Now that’s a franchise.”
Eventually Bob the A.I. reaches the skies, and the story-telling fragments around four plot-lines (vaguest of spoilers follow). One, whether or not anyone on Earth is still alive after the war that launched Bob. The second, Bob’s quest to seek out new habitable planets for humanity. Three, engagement with the other Bob-like technologies; and four, the discovery of sentient races. Since Bob has cloned himself but allowed for small variations in personality factors, each of these viewpoints is slightly different. Not different enough, however, largely because inter-Bob dialogue consists of smart-ass remarks and saying things like, “Hey, Gherkin. Miss me?” “Not from this range. Want to place a bet?” Goku’s tone was light, but I knew he was irritated. Because, well, I would have been. “Bite me. Did you look over the pics I sent?”
While I give Taylor points for creative concept, there are two significant problems with the narrative. One, the aforementioned story-telling challenge. The second is that since Bob is virtually eternal and omnipotent, the book feels like a slightly-amusing history teacher recounting The History of Things. On the upside, at least one of the four plot-lines is bound to satisfy a sci-fi itch, whether it’s colonization, alien races, space fights, or the mechanics of exploration. The omnipotence took away a large measure of suspense; the only issue was whether or not a Bob would be able to 3-D print to meet a time deadline. I’ll also note that there are quite a few ansibles developed in this book (the solution Ursula LeGuin created in her worlds for interstellar communications). But since there were so many convenient but implausible ‘discoveries’ meant that I never really doubted a solution would appear.
My actual reading experience went like this: I’d pick up the book, read for a while, get sleepy or interrupted and put it down. I would feel absolutely no urge to pick it up again, and actually read at least two other books during that time. When I picked it up again, I’d read steadily until interruption, and then set it down for a few days. It wasn’t until about 70% that I really found myself invested in finishing the book.
Ultimately, there are too many stories, too surface a view, too little suspense, coated in Friends-type one-liners when it isn’t delving into the science of mining or 3-D printing (as noted with the alien race, Bob is definitely not into biology and has only rudimentary ecology). I think for me, it boiled down to character–Bob isn’t nearly as funny as he thinks he is–and insufficient depth with some really complex sci-fi material (the philosophy of trying to save a race? Exterminate other A.I.s? Create an artificial body). Any single storyline would have deserved its own book.
I like Bob, I really do. He’s a genuinely nice guy who is enthusiastic about his passions and works hard to be successful. But he really needs to work on his story-telling ability, or at the very least, buy his listeners more beer.