Kiln People

David Brin’s novel Kiln People has been nominated for a Hugo Award.

Title: Kiln People

Author: David Brin

Original Publication Date: January 2002

ISBN: 0-765-30355-8

Cover Price: $29.95 U.S./35.95 Canadian (now on sale at Amazon)
Paperback: $7.99 U.S.

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A private investigator finds himselves at the center of several interlocking conspiracies in a late twenty-first century where people can make short-lived duplicates of themselves and then download the memories before the other self ceases to function.

High Points:

Brin’s writing style may not rank him (yet) among the best of SF writers, but his story-telling and imagination makes him a viable candidate for a Hugo. Despite its complexity– the plot twists more tortuously than a politician asked to take a stand on a contentious issue– we can follow along. This page-turner of a novel often took me by surprise: I did not expect the true identity of the character Beta, even though I should have seen something like this coming and, by the end of the novel, Brin has explained the most far-fetched element of that particular mystery.

Brin deserves special praise for his extrapolations. People use the technology as we probably would, if it existed (whether it could exist is a moot point, for much of the novel. See below), and it affects all aspects of the world portrayed and the story told. He’s given himself several challenges– such as multiple first-person narrator who are all the same person, sort of– and met them. And the implications have meaning for his readers.

Let’s face it: we live multiple lives, which we must integrate, just as his characters integrate the memories they assimilate from their various selves. I am at least two (somewhat) different people at my place of work; I have another life at home with my wife, and a slight variation of that with my extended family. My friends see a slight variation on the aforementioned. I have yet another life online, and gamers, actors, and people who post in expressly different personae have an even greater disparity among the lives they live.

I spent yesterday afternoon with my former teen sidekick (yes, I had a teen sidekick. Still a sidekick, but no longer a teen. She laments that we don’t actually have super-powers). Even though she is now twenty, she reminded me of how many streams of existence we have to integrate as teens. While telling his story, Brin gives us an interesting metaphor for reflecting on all of our multiple “lives.”

Low Points:

Brin can imagine an original world and follow through on the implications of its technology; why, then, does he fall into so many cliches of the detective and SF genres? Our hero and his doppelgangers receive cryptically unfinished (or just deliberately cryptic) dying words on multiple occasions. Brin also violates several pieces of good advice given in the Turkey City Lexicon. Infodump is inevitable, given the setting and the plot, but since he can do this well (as in the beginning), it’s a shame he so often does it flat-footedly, with extended explanations or long- winded expository dialogue. Bogus Alternatives in their worst form (“If Only” Syndrome, where a character decries not having taken a reasonable course of action that, in fact, would have been taken) run rampant through the final chapters.

Occasionally, he plays effectively with a cliche. A character I will call “the Mad Scientist” (to keep the identity a secret) clearly and cleverly mocks the stereotype. Given the far-fetched nature of the plot with which this character is entangled, however, Brin probably should have had him say less. I was willing to accept this world on its own merits; this character ultimately reminded me of the absurdities, making the novel seem needlessly cartoonish.

And I like bad puns as much as the next guy (what is it with SF and bad puns?), but a few of Brin’s– in context– are distractingly bad.

The Scores

Originality: 5 out of 6. Others selves, doppelgangers and evil twins are as old as literature, but I’ve never seen human duplication handled so effectively and originally.

Imagery: 5 out of 6. Brin’s world feels real, even when he wanders into satiric territory.

Story: 4 out of 6. Far-fetched (even given its premise), but readable and enjoyable.

Characterization: 4 out of 6. Good overall.

Emotional Response: 4 out of 6. Mixed, but I was engaged. The beginning worked very well; the ending stretched my willingness to suspend disbelief, with predictable results on my response.

Editing: out of 3 out of 6. See earlier comments.

Overall Score: 4 out 6.

In total, Kiln People receives 29 out of 42.

Additional Notes and Comments:

Kiln People has been nominated for a Hugo Award. Look for reviews of the other nominees in the novels category between now and August.

2 replies on “Kiln People”

  1. Good book
    I really got sucked into this novel… I like Brin’s style of story-telling. There were a few times though, when I became really bored with hearing the same story of a tedious day from each uhm clones POV. But most of the time, I was generally enthralled :)

  2. Zzzzzzz Boring
    I slugged through this novel. Took me almost two weeks. Fascinating concept. Maybe fascinating enough for a short story. When you know the main character is essentially a worthless carbon-copy, it’s just hard to build excitement. The book felt 2D. The characters weren’t well developed.

    OTOH, I’m currently reading “Fallen Dragon” by Peter F. Hamilton. About every 20 pages the autor throws a curveball from nowhere to keep you on your toes. Excellent so far.

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