“Von Neumann’s Bug” (VNB) is occupied with a trope familiar to science fiction fans: the self-replicating machine. In this case, the machine is an alien search drone named Bert who terrorizes a small, middle-class family in an attempt to rebuild itself and escape Earth’s gravity to resume its mission. And it does so by inconspicuously tearing apart a man’s most prized possession: his car.
In all honesty, I didn’t much care for VNB. As a humorous take on the Von Neumann concept, it lacked a certain kick that Brin’s preceding story, “Shoresteading,” brought to the anthology. The problem, I think, stems from the fact that the story offers no surprises. Everything the main character doesn’t know are things we do know because we are also presented with Bert’s perspective (and a third character — a military super computer). Even the attempts to paint the main character as mad fall short since nothing of note happens to him; in the end, Bert gets the
materials he needs and escapes Earth, leaving the human character to pretend like nothing ever happened. VNB is the kind of story that might have done just fine 80 years ago when the idea was fresh and new, but as a new story (first published in Gateways
), it’s little more than a repetition.
And that’s really what kills any short story for me: if you’re dealing with a familiar concept, then you have to give me something else to latch onto. Because I have already seen the Von Neumann idea used a dozen times before, I was hoping for character development from the human character. But I never got that. Instead, the story ends with a few minor changes (the neighbors don’t talk to him anymore and he has to fix his car), but overall nothing new.
That pretty sums up how I feel about this particular story. Thankfully, the Haldeman short that follows is much better. But you’ll have to wait for a review for that until later.
The above is the continuation of my story-by-story review of Gateways edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull.
Below are the reviews of other stories in the collection (which will be updated as reviews become available):