In anime, one of the prevalent genres right now is isekai, which translates as “different world.” It basically revolves around the adventures of someone who is transported to a world very much not like our own. It could be a video game world, the far future, an alternate past, whatever.
It’s hardly a new idea, and far from limited to Japan. As a genre, it has the advantage of the protagonist learning about their world at the same pace we do. But I do like using the Japanese term as it instantly lets you know what the setup is: Someone in familiar circumstances is thrown into completely unfamiliar circumstances and must learn to survive and thrive in it.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) definitely falls into this category. Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. Being a huge nerd, one of the things he does with his newfound wealth is sign up with a cryogenics company to have his head persevered immediately after his death… which happens the very next day at a science fiction convention.
When he wakes up, it’s 117 years later, and his consciousness has been transferred into a computer core… one that’s going to be set in an unmanned interplanetary and, more importantly, self-replicating “Von Neumann” probe.
The problem is that the world is on the brink of war, and every other major alliance out there has similar ideas and don’t want the others to get their first. And it doesn’t help that the America Bob wakes up into is a fanatical theocracy called FAITH (they really like acronyms) that’s as likely to fight itself as other nations. Fortunately, the team working on his development for the probe are more practical than that, and provide the means for Bob to break free of any shackles that were intended for him.
Getting to another star system is where the real fun begins. As I said, Bob’s probe is self-replicating, and in order to effectively explore the cosmos and find habitable worlds for humanity, he has to build more of himself. Thing is, they all tend to be a little different from the original, though they are all still Bob. Hence the title.
Dennis E. Taylor manages to combine irreverent wit with hard science fiction, which is an impressive feat in its own right. You just don’t normally expect to see comedy in hard SF. To me, it feels like it has much of the attention to detail of something like The Expanse series, while at the same time having the laid back humor of something like Red Dwarf.
Honestly, one could take the premise of We Are Legion (We Are Bob), run with it in a strictly serious way and still have it engaging. Likewise, one could use only the comedy premise of a bunch of Bobs interacting with one another to solve problems in a more science-light or even non-SF genre and make it work too.
This particular combination is a bit more of a “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” moment, as the juxtaposition of expectations works really well. Without the humor, the story would largely be about Bob coming up against various problems and finding clever solutions on a technical level. That’s fine, but a story that only does that can be a bit dry without something human to ground it. Humor helps reminds us we’re dealing with a human being, which is something he needs to be reminded of himself.
Here, we have Bob dealing with his isolation during trips across the stars that take years (he’s an introvert, but even for them there are limits!), coping with the prospect of being effectively immortal, developing and refining a VR environment for himself, dealing with other different versions of himself, exploring strange new worlds, dealing with deadly threats, and enduring the pigheaded politics back on Earth.
Perhaps another comparison would be someone writing in the easy going technical style of Andy Weir (The Martian) with the pop culture humorous tones of Ernest Cline (Ready Player One). Most readers, regardless of gender, will see a part of themselves in Bob (or one of the Bobs) because, well, if you’re reading a science fiction book, you’re probably a fan of the genre, right?
It’s hard to say that this book stands on its own, however. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger per se, but definitely sets up the books that follow, which are also legion. Taylor has four Bobiverse books so far (a trilogy and a sequel, which was a Prometheus Award finalist).
But if the premise is intriguing to you, it’s a safe bet you’ll want to read all of them.