One of the things that many space enthusiasts find frustrating about the space age is how slow it’s moving, at least relative to its early years. Humans made it to the moon almost 50 years ago, but since then seem to have retreated to low Earth orbit, working in space stations just above the atmosphere. Although there is always lots of talk about going further out again, it always seems to be several years in the future.
But while this has been going on with human spaceflight, robots have been exploring the entire solar system. We’ve sent probes on missions to every planet, and have some orbiting several of them. Mars has been thoroughly mapped from orbit and has had rovers exploring its surface pretty much continuously for the last couple of decades.
When it comes to space, humans simply aren’t the pioneers. That role now falls to robots. I don’t see that changing in the future, particularly as AI (artificial intelligence) continues growing in capabilities. This means that when humanity does reach the stars, it will inevitably be first, and possibly exclusively, with robots.
This puts science fiction authors in a bind. Stories of humans sitting around drinking coffee and eating bagels as news comes in of all the things the robots are doing aren’t very compelling. Some authors solve this by simply ignoring AI, or by imagining some limitation that AI development will run into that allows human characters to be at the center of the action again. But some solve it by making the stories about the AIs, or even by making the AIs….us.
That’s the approach that Dennis Taylor takes with his Bobiverse books, the first of which is We Are Legion (We Are Bob). The Bob in the title is Bob Johansson, a software entrepreneur who signs a contract with a cryonics company to be frozen at his death in hopes of revival in the future when medical technology improves. Shortly afterward, he ends up getting killed in an accident.
He wakes up a century later inside a computer, as a software replicant of the original Bob, an uploaded mind. America has become a theocracy, one that considers him in his new form to be technology rather than a person. He is drafted into being the control system for an interstellar Von Neumann probe, a self replicating robotic spacecraft designed to reach other solar systems and build new copies of itself using local resources, and then send the new copies further out exploring, where they’ll eventually build copies of themselves, and so on.
Just as Bob is being launched, a full scale war erupts and he barely makes it out. He then has to fight probes he encounters from other nations among the stars on his way to building BobNet, a network of replicated Bobs exploring the stars near Earth. Eventually, some of his copies return to a devastated Earth to help the last remnants of humanity escape to the stars.
He also encounters a primitive but intelligent species on one of the planets he explores, setting up a situation that starts off similar to the one at the beginning of 2001 A Space Odyssey, but essentially seen from the perspective of the monolith. And as the story progresses, he encounters a powerful existential threat to himself and humanity.
As a writer, I found the first book interesting, partly because, despite it’s lack of a tight plot structure, it was still very satisfying. We follow Bob as he reaches other solar systems, fights dangers, replicates, and makes new discoveries. There is a constantly increasing number of story threads as each new Bob comes online, and many different conflicts. It’s a bit episodic, with the episodes overlapping with each other, but works because the concept of self replicating interstellar probes is being explored.
I think the loose structure starts to make itself felt in the second book. I sometimes found the earlier parts of that book tedious, with some of the conflicts and issues feeling a bit like filler. But as the second books progresses, the existential threat becomes more apparent, which adds tension and excitement back to the story.
The story is told in first person, with the specific instance of the Bob (who each have their own names often drawn from classic science fiction stories, mythologies, or other sources) and his location listed at the beginning of each chapter. Bob is a good natured and sympathetic character whose fairly positive and humorous viewpoint keeps the story approachable, even when it gets pretty dark.
These books aren’t super hard science fiction. The Von Neumann concept is a serious one, but Taylor introduces some magical technologies in order to tell story he wants. These include a subspace concept that enables a reactionless drive, relativistic travel, faster than light detection and, eventually, faster than light communication. He also has each Bob’s personality be a little different, which he doesn’t explain except to hint that quantum indeterminacy may be the cause. And it seems like Taylor relies heavily on the panspermia concept for his aliens.
Of course, these compromises have the benefits of having each Bob be a somewhat unique character that can be in physical jeopardy, allows a more interactive community across interstellar distances, makes the aliens more relatable, and saves the story from being far more concerned with the logistics of energy production and usage than it otherwise would have needed to be.
There’s a lot to like in these books. I’ve read the first two and expect to quickly consume the third when it becomes available later this year. If the ideas of mind uploading, self replicating interstellar probes, and space battles appeal to you, I highly recommend them.