A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a young computer programmer. My work was programming machines using what we called assembly language, which is basically working on the chip level. To program the machines, I had to burn EPROMS (chips) that I then plugged into circuit boards before I could run the program on a machine. Needless to say, I learned a lot about computers and particularly peripheral devices that are connected to computers, like actuators, sensors and motors that would actually make the machines move and do something useful.
During that time, I was also very interested in artificial intelligence. This was 40 years ago, and things were very rudimentary. I used to tell my associates that one day I’d be able to upload my consciousness into a computer and become independent of my body. I would be a machine who is conscious. Of course, I said I’d not want to just be some industrial robot, like the ones I was working on, but I’d want to be a spaceship. With weapons. I could just feel my ray guns itch.
I was also an avid science fiction reader, and I knew about von Neumann probes.
A von Neuman probe is a self-replicating spacecraft without humans. It leaves the earth, spends decades or even centuries traveling to other stars, where it searches for raw materials and resources to build another copy of itself. Each copy then does the same thing. After a few centuries, the galaxy would be full of its clones.
Von Neuman is an interesting figure in his own right. Read up on him here. Sadly, he died in 1957 at the age of 53. He was a child prodigy. From Wikipedia:
Von Neumann was a child prodigy. When he was six years old, he could divide two eight-digit numbers in his head and could converse in Ancient Greek. When the six-year-old von Neumann caught his mother staring aimlessly, he asked her, “What are you calculating?”
When they were young, von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins were instructed by governesses. Von Neumann’s father believed that knowledge of languages other than their native Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of eight, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, and by twelve he had read and understood Borel’s Théorie des Fonctions.
Now let’s get to the book We Are Legion (We Are Bob).
Bob Johansson is a software entrepreneur in our time. He has just sold his software company, he is wealthy, and he is just starting to look forward to a life of leisure. He signs up with a cryogenics company which, upon his death, will deep freeze his head, with his brain and presumably his consciousness, until sometime in the future when technology is far enough along that his mind can be loaded into a machine. As (bad) luck would have it, as soon as the contract is signed he is hit by a car crossing a road. The world goes dark and he dies.
He snaps into consciousness in the year 2133. It’s a very different world from the one he knows. The United States, as we know it, no longer exists. The religious right had won several elections, the country went through an economic meltdown, and eventually a theocracy arose as the leading power in what used to be the United States. Also, the world political situation was drastically different, with a Eurasian block, the Chinese, Australia, and a Brazilian militaristic power.
Bob finds himself a replicant, which is a consciousness without a body, basically a computer program. He can be turned on or off from the outside and he can be backed up and copied. He is destined to be sent off into space in a von Neumann probe to explore other star systems.
While political unrest escalates on earth, he barely gets away before disaster strikes and a nuclear exchange decimates the people of earth. Bob reaches another star system and starts making copies of himself.
This book explores the feasibility of von Neumann probes, and it speculates on what the world would be like from the perspective of a human being who is completely disembodied and exists only as a computer program.
This is a debut novel and as such well-written and paced. There are none of the annoying problems we often encounter in debut novels, like poor writing, grammatical and spelling errors, and the like. The author must have used a good editor to make sure the book is clean of such distractions. The character development is a bit awkward, and the dialog sometimes stilted. But the subject matter kept me – obviously – interested and I wanted to find out what would happen next.
There was no ending. The book stopped virtually mid-paragraph. While this is a series of four books, and the author thinks of them as one story, he should have done a better job of finishing up book one for those who will only read it. But he didn’t even make an attempt of that.
While I enjoyed the book, I think I have absorbed the main concepts of human intelligence embedded in space ships. The rest is now just drama and more politics, and I can do without. So I won’t be reading the rest of the series.
Minor Spoiler Alert
The author chooses to make one of the factions of villains the leaders of the theocracy in the former United States. He portrays them as zealous, stupid, cunning and manipulative. Obviously, the author is an atheist and he does not have much respect for Christianity or religion as a whole. When I read some of the 1-star reviews on Amazon, it became apparent that he pissed off many religious people who took the book as an assault on them, their values and of course their religion. Some called it a diatribe, a left-wing assault on the country, and the like.
I didn’t see any of that when I read the book, but then, of course, I am not religious and I don’t make any effort to place myself into the shoes of religious people. I certainly think that theocracies are terrible for humanity as a whole, and I don’t have any praise for Christianity.
When it comes down to it, the author could have left all this theocracy stuff out. It didn’t really matter much in the plot, since Bob freed himself early on from the shackles his masters tried to put him into, and for the rest of the plot, Christianity had no valid active role. The way I see it, the author drew the ire of a large part of the population of the country, and therefore potential readers, by presumably ridiculing them and their beliefs, when he could have achieved the very same plot and story and message without doing that. Any other regime would have worked just as well.
Maybe his critics are right, maybe he did want to spread his message and agenda with this novel, but I think it backfired.
We turn to science fiction to let our minds reach, to experience wonder and awe, and for entertainment. We don’t turn to science fiction to get political rants or religious or anti-religious doctrine.
So, if you are a Christian, you might not like this book, and you best leave it be.