I am not sure what it is with me but I tend to take light sci-fi novels and view them in a much darker than intended way. And sci-fi novels are intended to be dark are depressingly bleak (Three Body Problem trilogy, looking at you here!). While everyone else was enjoying the ride of Ready Player One, my response was: “they’ve basically destroyed the environment, life is miserable, and the novel’s focus is on winning a video game. I mean I get it as a means to an end, to have the power to save the world, but the protagonist certainly didn’t seem to care about his surrounding environment for most of the novel.” Similarly, this is another one of those sci-fi novels that mostly is light and breezy, but I couldn’t stop my brain from asking certain questions, and I kept waiting for one of the many Bobs to ask at least one of my questions – which one does, towards the end of the novel only to promptly be ignored and dismissed as negative/gloomy.
Anyway, the novel kicks off in the modern day. Bob, an introverted software engineer, has just sold his company, with a tidy profit, enough so that he can treat his former employees to a weekend in Vegas at a sci-fi convention, pay for himself to be cryogenically frozen, and still be set for life. Fortunately for him, the cryogenics firm was one of the first purchases he made with his new fortune since he is struck by a car and killed the first day of the convention. Cue to 116 years later, and Bob wakes up to discover that his plan didn’t quite work out due to political upheaval and changes. After a coup by the religious right, the rights of cryogenically frozen people were no longer recognized, their assets were ceased by the government, and labs ended up using the remaining brains to develop cognitive AI. Machine developed AI still had some kinks so science has found that using scans of human brains and turning those scans into the operating systems had the most success. The scientists scanned Bob for an especially important government initiative involving space exploration for potential human colonization. While the government remains incredibly religious and conservative, the 22nd century is experiencing its version of the moon race, and as a result, the North American government has gone ahead with this controversial project.
Bob was lucky enough to attend a lecture on Von Neumann probes at the sci-fi convention, since he will now be the AI running one of these probes. The idea is basically that space exploration would require probes that would make copies of themselves as they went further and further out of range of Earth. With 3D printers, the challenge of replication has been removed, and with cognitive AI (or Bob), the probes can make decisions on movements and how to further explore.
After a successful but dramatic launch, Bob enters his first system, completes his first set of replications and realizes that each model has a slightly different personality despite all using the same code. With more Bobs in the mix, they split up to explore different parts of the universe, return to check on Earth, work on terraforming the initial planet discovered and otherwise engage in pet projects. Due to the time and distance involved in space travel, the time lines quickly diverge, so one model’s report might be from 2178 while the next chapter could be from a Bob in 2167.
Up to this point, the novel is mostly fun and light with a few political statements regarding the religious right. In order to avoid confusion, Bob also makes his copies choose new names for themselves so there are quite a few references to nerd culture between names like Riker, Mario, Homer (Simpson) to list only a few. It’s not nearly as bad as Ready Player One about listing references but does at some point cross from funny to slightly eye roll inducing. Unfortunately, given the premise of the novel, there also isn’t much room for women characters since it’s just various versions of Bob exploring the galaxy and making bad jokes.
The thing that surprised me a bit is that at no point does any Bob question the ethics of his exploration. He is excited to explore space, but when he finds planets that have a developed ecosystem with life, he immediately decides to send this information back to Earth so they can colonize the planet. He never wonders if humans have the right to take over new planets with evolved ecosystems rather than simply letting those planets continue to develop – maybe they would eventually develop intelligent life if left to their own devices. And even if life never becomes intelligent, why do humans take precedence over the local life already in existence? When Bob finds a planet with intelligent life, he does comment that it is out of the question for colonization, but this does not stop him from interfering and profoundly speeding up their evolution. Bill, one of the first copies of Bob, decides to terraform a planet, which is actually the space colonization option I support. If humans can turn an uninhabitable rock into a livable planet, they should absolutely colonize it because it would have been unlivable anyway without their interference. It kind of bugged me that none of the Bob’s ever questioned any of their actions in this regard – even if they still chose to go through with them, I would have at least liked to have the philosophical thought come up (and saying, “fuck this, we aren’t on Star Trek, there is no prime directive” isn’t quite enough acknowledgment to appease me). Bob’s lack of questioning of himself kind of reminds me of a certain meme …
I actually mostly had fun while reading this one, but this review is slightly colored by my reading of the second novel (I actually stopped reading the book a quarter of the way through because they feel more like one book that was broken in two, and I would have otherwise had a very hard time keeping the two distinct). As far as I can tell, book 2 continues in the same vein as book 1, and what works well in one book doesn’t always work well for a series of them without some change or repercussions. Now that this review is done, though, I can finish book 2 and see if Bob ever learns any lessons.