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Kiln People

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This is the first David Brin novel I have read in a long time. Other than some short stories, the only other things I have read are the first three Uplift novels, but based on the strengths of this one I need to correct that oversight as soon as possible. Published early in 2002, it was second in the balloting for last year's Hugo Award, and was also nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This is a stand-alone novel, not connected to any of his other series. It one day may get a sequel, because fantasticfiction.co.uk still has a listing for another related book, Kiln Time, although that has been there for several years and yet no one seems to have ever seen the book.

I realize this may be a bit of an exaggeration, but just when you think the only new genre books coming out are either yet another heroic fantasy or an overblown, multi-volume space opera, here comes Brin with a tale that will remind you of the sociological and psychologically driven stories of such '50s icons as Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick. At the same time, it also evokes memories of William Gibson and other cyberpunk authors. That might come as a surprise to some, as it did me, since most of Brin's other work is quite a bit different in tone. It works on many levels at once, being not only an examination of a revolutionary new technology, but also a hard-boiled detective story.

The book is set in the mid-21st Century, as society has been transformed by "Ditto-Tech," a process whereby a person's memories can be downloaded into a duplicate clay body (a ditto), and that copy can be assigned any manner of mundane tasks, leaving the original human archetype (archie) free for more leisurely pursuits. At the end of the day, if desired, the memories of the ditto can be uploaded by the archie, maintaining a continuity of consciousness. The dittos (also known as golem) are programmed to last just 24 hours, then the bodies degenerate down to a slurry of their basic components, which can be recycled into the manufacture of more clay blanks.

There is a wide range in the cost and quality of the ditto blanks, which are categorized by color. Green dittos are utilized for the most basic, repetitive tasks such as cleaning, yard work, etc. Grays can handle more variable jobs as long as it does not require too much individual thought, but if that is necessary then an ebony is used. The richest of the population use platinum dits, while an ivory (designed for its tactile sensitivity) can give its owner memories of exotic sexual encounters without the risk of STDs or personal entanglements.

Just as the quality of the dittos varies, so does the ability of humans in creating viable dittos. It is important for the archie to concentrate on the task that will be performed by the ditto he is creating, otherwise the ditto can lose track of its assigned duties and waste its short alloted time. An unfortunate few of very low intelligence have never been able to control the process, thus are forced to work for themselves.

One person who has never had that problem is the main character, Albert Morris, a private investigator. All of his golems, whether green, gray or ebony, exhibit a very high capacity for the tasks assigned them. They not only show pride in the work they do, they also have a great desire to return to Albert to upload their memories, so that each time one of his dittos is created it retains as much of the expertise his profession requires as possible. On rare occasions one of his dittos does not return, supposedly falling victim to the dangerous nature of a ditective's life, or so Morris assumes.

For many months Morris has been on the trail of a notorious dit-napper, known to him only as Beta. His prey has been able to steal dittos of several famous celebrities, using them to create counterfeit dittos in their likeness, then selling them on the black market. He has encountered Beta several times – or at least his dittos have encountered Beta's dittos – but has never been able to determine his true identity. He is also drawn into another investigation, a search for the missing Yosil Maharal, co-discoverer of ditto technology, and co-founder of Universal Kilns, the major manufacturer of ditto blanks. Little does he know that the two investigations have much in common.

I won't provide any further details so as not to spoil it for anyone, as I do recommend this book highly. It is an intricate and well-told story, following several narrative tracks at once, as Morris sends out several dittos on various trails, as well as taking a great risk himself disguised as another ditto. Along with this complex structure there are many intriguing inquiries into the nature of self, memory and the possibility of not only our souls, but those of the dittos as well. The only negative I can think of to mention is the frequent puns surrounding the words ditto, clay and golem, although to be fair, unlike the majority of puns several of them are genuinely funny, especially one utilizing the word archie.

 

Related Links:
David Brin's Official Website
Templeton Gate's Brin Profile written by Eliza Dolots

 

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Author
David Brin

Published
2002

Awards
Nominated for Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke & John W. Campbell Memorial awards

Available from amazon.com