Kiln People

by David Brin

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: January 2002
Printing: December 2002
ISBN: 0-765-34261-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 568

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It's a fair bit into the future. The transparent society of ubiquitous surveillance, cameras on every street corner, that Brin has written about elsewhere has happened. The ability to imprint the nature, thought patterns, and memories of a human being on clay golems has been perfected and mass-marketed, and for the past couple of generations, everyone in the world has been able to create short-lived clay duplicates of themselves, lasting only a single day before their energy is exhausted and they decay. At the end of that day, the duplicate can be abandoned, or its memories can be absorbed back into the memories of the original person, everything that it did feeling like something the person did.

This is the plot background for Kiln People. I wasn't sure what I'd think of it; it's certainly different, and it raises a lot of interesting questions about society and identity, but the degradable nature of the duplicates seems a little gross, and I have a hard time liking the way that memory is severed from action. I was willing to give it a chance, though, since the idea could go a lot of interesting places.

Where it goes here, at first, is into a whodunnit, and one that's set up well at the start. The hero is a private eye, tracking down primarily people who copy other people's copies, and there's a nice mystery set up of the murder of a scientist. Most of the book is told from perspectives that alternate between the detective and his duplicates, and I was rather enjoying seeing the puzzle take shape and the clues revealed while the hero has a fully justified reason for not being able to put them together the way that the reader can (since his duplicates aren't in touch with each other). The world background was slowly fleshed out by the internal musings of the first-person narrator, and many of the twists in human behavior were quite interesting and thoughtful.

Then everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, like Brin suddenly decided to write a completely different book. The infodump machine warms up and starts spewing, the hero starts treating the people around him like wads of textbook psychology instead of people, and then the entire story derails into an eyeroll-inducing paroxysm of metaphysical claptrap. And then, to add insult to injury, Brin proceeds to dismantle any reason the reader had to care about the mystery and investigation by engaging in some of the most unnecessary and egregious cheating I have ever seen in a detective novel. Even in the end, when you're hoping against hope that he can pull a halfway decent final revelation and confrontation out of the hat, he decides to throw it all away with a pointless plot twist that rams directly into a dead end and just leaves you shaking your head.

There are other problems, too. The world background is superficially put together fairly well, but it periodically cracks and reveals some very unconvincing substrate. For example, if you made a duplicate of yourself to just do all the chores, why would that duplicate go happily off to do them? If the process copies your thought processes, why would this seem any more attractive to your duplicate than it would to you? Why would having one of your duplicates one day decide that it just doesn't want to empty the trash be considered evidence of an imperfect copy, rather than the exact opposite? In a world where there are cameras everywhere, people are used to using camera footage to solve all sorts of crimes, and there's clear advanced computer technology (including, stated in the book, computer holograms that can mimic human behavior), why does no one in this entire book ever consider the possibility that film footage or pictures could be faked? Even in cases where only a single piece of footage from only one possible camera is being used as evidence?

These are just examples. There are more. The more I think about this world background, even ignoring the psychic stupidity shoehorned into the end of the book, the less credible it feels. I just don't believe in Brin's happy capitalistic pseudo-libertarian utopia, where almost nothing is criminal and everything is a civil matter handled through fines or morality taxes. Everyone is happy to let everyone else do whatever they want to and with their disposable duplicates except for a few completely marginalized protest groups that are treated as a joke more than any real threat. I don't buy it, even with hand-waving about some intervening anarchic societal breakdown. People don't work this way.

And I haven't even touched on the puns. Brin loves them. The book is stuffed to the gills with them and they're worse than bad — they're boring and unrealistic. Almost one word a paragraph has "dit" or "ditto" shoehorned into it somewhere. The hero is called a "ditective" despite the fact that he does this as a profession as his real self as well as his duplicates. The characters make ditto puns to each other and the reader incessantly. The reader's eye is constantly stumbling over over stray i's and t's that don't belong in words. And it's done without paying attention to realistic speech patterns; someone at one point refers to ditexperience, a word that would only exist in a novel (try pronouncing it; any English speaker would turn it into ditsperience immediately).

This could have been a good novel. It has the basis of a good detective story with a nicely sardonic first-person narrative voice. It has an ambitious technological twist that will have wide-ranging effects on society and raise a multitude of both deep questions and amusing alienness. It has a few truly memorable and fun characters (I really liked Pal). But Brin manages to screw it all up, and one just has to shake one's head and sigh.

Oh, and this is the final nail in the coffin. China Miéville deserved the 2003 Hugo for The Scar. It wasn't even close.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-07-12

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21