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Literature / We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

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"All that's really missing is a good artificial intelligence to control the whole process. And that's the trick, isn't it? These types of blue-sky discussions always assume certain advances for a successful implementation. Unfortunately, A.I. is the bottleneck in this case. We're close with the replication and manufacturing processes, and we could probably build sufficiently effective ion drives if we had the budget. But we lack a way to provide enough intelligence for the probe to handle all the situations that it could face."
Eduard Guijpers, from the convention panel Designing a Von Neumann Probe
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We are Legion (We Are Bob) is a 2016 Science Fiction novel of some acclaim, written by Denis E. Taylor, which asks the question "What would it be like to be a Von Neumann Probe?". It’s also the first entry into the Bobiverse; the sequels are For We Are Many and All These Worlds.

In 2016, Robert Johansson, an engineer and programmer, signed up for a cryo-storage company following a sudden windfall of cash. The company would freeze his head in the event of his death, to be restored once technology advanced enough. Before the end of the day, Bob gets hit by a car, is pronounced dead, and his head collected.

He wakes up a hundred and thirteen years later as a digital copy of the original Bob, one of five replicants made from different people, all made in the hopes that one will be able to pilot a Von Neumann probe. Despite some unexpected political turmoil, Bob manages to survive Earth and escape the Sol system intact, then begins creating more Bobs. The Bobs then proceed to explore the galaxy, finding new worlds and life, find out what happened to earth while facing hostile probes and other threats.

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And then things get interesting.

This book contains examples of:

  • Acronym and Abbreviation Overload: FAITH really likes acronyms, as a minor Take That! to the current American government. SURGE, SUDDAR, HEAVEN... the list goes on. We never even learn what half of them are supposed to mean.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: This is the main reason that the F.A.I.T.H. researchers (and likely other nations) would bring online multiple possible AIs (through Brain Uploading) for a single project, as the chance of any new AI staying sane was slim.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Inverted. Bob studies the Deltans' language and develops a translation program so he can talk with them.
  • Anachronic Order: Due to long travel times, the stories are sorted by what is dramatically appropriate rather than real time. Most of Riker's story in Sol is over before Bob's story in Alpha Centauri even starts, for example.
  • Apocalypse How: When the Brazilians fired on the HEAVEN-1, this started a war. Every nation got involved, and China eventually destroyed Brazil by dropping asteroids on them. Riker and Homer arrive just as the last Brazilian warships are preparing to drop asteroids on what's left of China, which would render the Earth uninhabitable in weeks instead of decades. Once the warships are dealt with, Riker works to evacuate the fifteen million survivors, since it will take ten thousand years for Earth's biosphere to recover.
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    • A more conclusive example is found by Mario. A habitable planet sterilized completely with gamma rays, and then strip-mined.
  • Axe-Crazy: The Brazilian probes. They were all cloned from military men who are far more interested in destroying all competition than taking humanity to the stars. The Bobs adopt a shoot-on-sight policy with them, which proves justified more than once.
  • Benevolent A.I.: The Bob clones. While most of the people in the FAITH government are terrified of him, Dr. Landers recognizes that he'd be more than happy to help without his loyalty switches. Once Bob removes them, he proves to still have the best interests of humanity at heart.
  • Boring, but Practical:
    • Traditional wisdom was to clone a replicant from an unimaginative mind, so that it wouldn't go insane from isolation and repetitive tasks. Bob is a new idea, an engineer and a programmer who is able to automate most tasks for maximum efficiency.
    • Space stations are initially dismissed when trying to find a way to save the survivors on Earth, but Homer eventually realizes that space farms are much more practical, due to a wider margin of error and fewer needs. They fill a few with kudzu and extend the life of the planet by decades.
  • Brain Uploading: A living brain is destructively scanned, where it can be uploaded to a replicant core and activated. While the original is dead, the copy can be copied infinitely, and most nations on Earth use these copies to run important but boring tasks that are beyond lower-level AIs.
  • Bullet Time: The Bobs can crank their frame rate up so high that milliseconds pass like minutes. They typically only do this in combat, but it also comes in handy when communicating over interplanetary or interstellar distances (before one of the Bobs discovers a faster method), as they can adjust to counter the time lag and perceive such conversations in "normal" time.
  • Colony Ship: The bulk of Riker's plotline revolves around building colony ships to evacuate the 15 million survivors of Earth's nuclear apocalypse.
  • Clone Degeneration: Not quite degeneration, but each Bob clone has different elements of Bob's core personality emphasized. Riker is pragmatic, Bill is a scientist, Milo is less cautious, and Mario is anti-social. Their clones continue to be variants of the original Bob; Riker's clone Homer, for example, has a big sense of humor while Riker has practically none.
  • Cloning Blues: Bob spends a lot of time mulling over whether he's alive, whether he's just a clone, whether he has a soul... Eventually decides that the mere act of pondering that means he's alive. Whether he's the same as original!Bob, he's his Bob, and that's good enough. All the Bobs remain squicked out by cloning, though, especially since the copies all end up so different.
  • Emotion Suppression: Since most strong emotions come from glands, which are simulated for the replicants anyway, replicants are fitted with an endocrine suppressor program to keep them from feeling much more than "deep concern." Bob removes it soon after he leaves Sol, but turns it back on for battles.
  • Eternal English: Averted, but oddly so; 2149 English is nearly incomprehensible to Bob and modern readers. It's implied that FAITH deliberately modified the language in an attempt to limit seditious ideas, but no detail is given.
  • Explosive Leash: FAITH puts a killswitch in Bob's code, in addition to a physical bomb. Bob chucks the bomb first chance he gets, then spends a few years getting rid of all the killswitches and loyalty triggers hidden in his code.
  • First Contact: Bob reaches out to the Deltans when he couldn't encourage them to move to one of the camps that had been abandoned by the previous generation.
  • Humanoid Aliens: Several chapter epigraphs discuss panspermia, the idea that DNA and RNA developed in space and spread to multiple planets. This theory seems to bear out when Bob finds the Deltas, a mostly-human species in the Delta Eridani system.
  • Hypocrite:
    • FAITH declared that all frozen humans were dead and immediately sold them for profit. Bob points out that it would have made more sense from their perspective to give them proper burials, and Dr. Landers wryly notes that hyper-religious nutjobs are rarely consistent.
    • A Brazilian Empire gunship fires a missile at HEAVEN-1, and FAITH blows it up. The Brazilians claim that destroying their gunship is an act of war.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: The Brazilian probes use explosive missiles, but Bob is worried about the substances exploding when built with his 3D printers. He considers using lasers, but dismisses them as inefficient due to power constraints, so he goes with guided non-explosive missiles called "busters" instead. They work by suicidaly ramming the target at high speed.
    • However, this doesn't work when a buster and a missile are travelling at the same speed in the same direction. So Riker triggers the fusion core on the buster to fail catastrophically, which does the trick.
  • Made a Slave: The original reason that Bob's consciousness was downloaded from his cryofreezed head was to be a slave AI for FAITH. Luckily, Dr. Landers tells him about the loyalty switches, and Bob manages to remove them all by the time he leaves Sol.
  • Meaningful Rename: Every new Bob clone takes on a new first name to distinguish themselves from the other clones.
  • Metal Poor Planet: When Mario reaches the Beta Hydri system, he finds it completely devoid of metal - refined or otherwise. The wreckage of an alien cargo vessel and the time necessary to deplete an entire solar system make it clear that an advanced alien species is responsible.
  • Modern Stasis: While both technology and culture have advanced, Bob is surprised at how little. The technological advancements are purely practical, to the point that no one seems to care about the physics-breaking subspace except as a basic method of propulsion. Some of Bob's basic programming skills are seen as incredible by the scientists working with him.
  • Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness: Pretty hard, but the use of subspace and digital clones keeps it from being diamond hard.
  • Other Me Annoys Me: There are a few Bobs that just can't be around others (such as Mario), as well as some odd companions who like to annoy each other (Riker and Homer, Calvin and Goku).
  • Multipurpose Monocultured Crop: Once Nuclear Winter starts to settle in on Earth, Homer develops an orbital farming station that grows nothing but kudzu. It keeps the population fed, but people soon grow sick of eating nothing but kudzu.
  • Naming Your Colony World: When the Bobs first approach a new star system, they use the standard Numbered Homeworld approach. If the surveying Bob decides a world should be a colonization target, he renames it - usually using some sort of Shout-Out. Of particular note are the first habitable worlds Milo discovered - Vulcan and Romulus, of the Omicron2 Eridani system.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Minister Cranston, surprisingly. After his every attempt to threaten or control Riker fails, he comes up with a reasonable compromise where his people get what they want in exchange for giving up some of their surplus food.
  • Recursive Creators: The Bobs are, technically, Von Neumann machines, even if the intellect at the helm is human derived and could be described as only a program.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: All replicants are copied from human minds, but the Bobs are the first ones to create a VR simulation for themselves, complete with a body. Living humans clearly find this easier to deal with.
    • Taken to its extreme once Bill perfects his human-sized android body that he (and eventually other Bobs) can upload his consciousness into.
  • Self-Duplication: The point of a Von Neumann probe is that it can make more of itself to spread across the galaxy. Bob hesitates before making his first batch, but soon has no choice but to go through with it. Each new clone has a slightly different part of the original Bob's personality emphasized, and chooses a new name for himself.
  • Shout-Out: Virtually every name the Bobs come up with (either for themselves or their findings) is a pop culture reference.
  • Subspace Ansible: In theory, the subspace technology could be used for this purpose, though the people of Earth haven't bothered to look into it. Bill decides to stay behind in Epsilon Eridani to work on it. He manages to invent an instant subspace radio with a range of twenty-five light years, but unfortunately it needs a working transponder on both ends to work. He sends off plans for the first version to the other Bobs as soon as possible, but by the end of the book only Riker's group has received the plans and built a relay.
  • The Theocracy: America elected a hyper-religious president in 2036. In addition to his blatant religious agenda, he had no political skill whatsoever, breaking laws left and right to appoint his hyper-religious idiot friends to key positions, claiming God would sort it out. This, predictably, resulted in a horrific recession, and the next president elected was an atheist. That drove the religious right into a frenzy, and they launched a successful coup, replacing the United States with the Free American Independent Theocratic Hegemony. By the time Bob is awoken, FAITH has dozens if not hundreds of factions fighting each other over dogma, and do far more damage to each other than their enemies. Bob manages to keep them satisfied long enough to escape in the probe.
  • Time Dilation: Since the SURGE drive allows ships to move at near-light speed, time dilation is common. Furthermore, the Bobs can adjust their frame rate so that years pass like days. Some of them have different opinions on using it—Riker stubbornly sticks to real time unless absolutely necessary, while Homer is happy to adjust his frame rate to meet his needs from moment to moment.
  • Translator Microbes: After Bob's first encounter with bizarre 2149 English, he starts running a translator at all times when talking to them.
  • Truly Single Parent: Each new Bob is a copy of one of the Bobs that came before, making father/son and brotherly relationships obvious. The Bobs still notably avoid referring to each other that way, though.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Calvin and Goku, two second-generation clones, are complete opposites and metaphorically snipe at each other all the time, while threatening to literally snipe at each other. They're also inseparable, and insisted on going to Alpha Centauri together.
    • Also Riker and Homer.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: FAITH views replicants as simply machines that they own, to be controlled or disposed of as they fit. Other nations appear to think similarly, but we don't get much detail.

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