Kiln People, David Brin

Tor, 2002, 569 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34261-8

The golem has a long and distinguished history in fantastic literature, from the Bible onward, up to the Capek’s first “robots”, men of metallic clay designed to do the work of humans. David Brin’s Kiln People is a playful update on this concept, wrapped in a futuristic thriller and smoothed over with clear prose.

In the future, there will be dittos, states Brin as a starting premise. Clay replicas of people, temporarily imprinted with their memories and personalities for up to 24 hours until the chemical dissolution of the ditto. Re-assimilation of ditto memories is possible, but remains optional. Why spend a day cleaning up the house when you can simply replicate a ditto for this express purpose, then re-integrate their memories just to make sure you remember where you’ve filed everything? Why risk policemen’s lives when you can just use dittos instead? Why subject your permanent body to sexual, chemical or physical abuse when you can send it to party all night long and then re-integrate their memories at dawn?

Mega “What If?”! The possibilities are limitless, and that’s part of what makes the first half of Kiln People so compelling: This is a big Science-Fiction novel with a brand-new premise (does it sound like Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies, though?) and the guts to take a hard look at the possibilities of the thing. For those who still cling to the comfortable notion that SF should be a literature of ideas, well, look not further than this book to make you fall in love with the genre all over again. Brin easily integrates plenty of neat derived possibilities and runs with them through the course of the novel.

There is a plot to tie everything together, and (perhaps unfortunately), it ends up being a complex, heavy-duty story of familial obsessions, criminal conspiracies, doomsday devices and fancy detection. The hero of the piece is one Albert Morris, private investigator extraordinaire with an uncanny ability to make very faithful dittos. (Most people have trouble creating completely-faithful versions of themselves, and occasionally create runaway dittos that don’t identify with their creators.) In the course of his work, RealAl often generates clay duplicates of himself, sending them in dangerous or boring situations, always trying to nab crooks and corporate criminals. But on one particular day where he decides to generate four dittos to make care of ongoing business, well, let’s just say that a lot of very bad things happen at once to all of him…

Fans of the author won’t be dissatisfied by this effort, Brin’s first stand-alone adult novel since 1993’s Glory Season. His trademark blend of deep extrapolation, cheerful optimism and good humour is on full display here, in a novel that is more than worthy of attention. Those who have read Brin’s non-fiction work The Transparent Society can expect some further discussion of privacy and accountability. Stylistically, the challenges in representing five different first-person variants of the same characters are significant. And yet it’s one of Brin’s greatest successes that the viewpoint-hopping is handled almost seamlessly. (Readers with a low tolerance for puns or cliffhanger chapters may not be overly pleased, though.)

As the novel advances, its challenges become even greater and Brin stumbles a bit. The carefully-constructed rules of dittotech are, as expected, bent and then broken by new technology. (Alas, a suggestion that dittos have their own subculture hidden from the real humans is sort of left unexplored) The progressive slide of the novel from light-hearted mystery to deeper metaphysical territory isn’t completely unexpected, but it’s a thematic departure from the initial feel of the story. It nevertheless evolves into an interesting dissection of identity and even of humanity.

Add to that the lighthearted tone, and you’ve got an old-school pure-SF novel that works on several levels at once, and provides a great reading experience on top of everything else. I don’t ask for much more than that in my SF diet, and that’s why I’m pleased to see that Kiln People made it on the 2003 Hugo ballot for best novel of the year. It certainly has my vote.

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