Review Date: 10 July 2003

Kiln People, by David Brin
Tor, New York, NY, January 2003 (originally published in 2002), 576 pages, Paperback, US$7.99, ISBN:0765342618
a review by Rich Horton

Kiln People is set several decades in the future. The key technological innovation presented in the book is "golemtech" -- it has become possible to imprint a person's "soul", or "Standing Wave", into a clay model, a golem or ditto, which will then have all one's memories, and which can do errands for their "archetype". These models last only a day, after which they return to the archetype, and the memories can be inloaded if the archetype so chooses.

This has resulted in an economic revolution. Most of the grunt work is now done by low-quality dittos, most of which don't even inload their (presumably boring) memories to their archetype. As a result many people have no job, and live on the "purple wage". Recreations include, predictably, unusual sex using special dittos optimized for heightened sensation; as well as "clay operas" -- realistic dramas enacted with dittos; and dangerous sports in which the loss of a ditto is regretted only if it results in complete enough destruction that the memories cannot be inloaded. A key change, too, is that wars are now fought as a form of "sport", with skilled soldiers sending fighting dittos to such places as the Jesse Helms Memorial Battle Range to resolve international disputes. These various tasks are done by dittos of different sorts, by law all different colors: grey ones for relatively normal tasks, green ones for fairly menial work, white ones for extra sensation, ebony ones for intellectual focus, etc.

All this background detail is very well done. Brin has done a neat job of pretty pure SFnal extrapolation -- taking a quasi-plausible and interesting bit of future tech, and trying to work out its effects on an entire society.

The story itself is basically a thriller. Albert Morris is a private detective. He ends up with several different "selves" investigating (in parallel, it turns out) the death of Yosil Maharal, one of the inventors of golem technology. If it is murder (it might be accident or suicide) the suspects include Maharal's partner, Aenaeas Kaolin; a crime lord called Beta who has had many past encounters with Albert; Gineen Wammaker, a purveyor of sex dittos; and various fanatics, both anti-golem agitators, and those who want dittos to have full civil rights. This story is for the most part pretty exciting, and confusing in a good way that eventually gets resolved. Albert's journeys, and those of his dittos (including a "frankie" -- a ditto who didn't copy true and wants to be independent of Albert), allow exploration of much of this future society. The search for motives for the murder leads us to investigate some research, hence further extrapolation: what would be the effect of dittos that could last longer than a day? Of dittos that could be copied over long distances? Of the possibility of loading somebody else's memories into your head? All this is pretty interesting stuff.

Then, the book pretty much runs off the rails. Why? I think the answer is -- too much ambition. Brin begins to explore even more metaphysical issues -- "souls" independent of the body, in another dimension -- life after death -- that sort of thing. And in so doing he stretches his extrapolation to the point where my belief in it snapped completely. The "mad scientist" finale really just about lost me. I think the book would have been better if Brin had turned off his imagination at a certain point -- if he had been more conservative.

That said, though I think the silliness of some of the last 100 or so pages of the book is a severe flaw, it's still a pretty strong piece of SFnal extrapolation up that point, with some pretty decent action to the plotline. Overall, I recommend the book -- worth reading, just not a great book.