Kiln People depicts a society in which the capacity to manufacture inexpensive but short-lived “dittoes” of real people has had far-reaching consequences. Freed of the necessity to work or perform other onerous social tasks, those who can afford the new technology use their dittoed replicas for a variety of purposes. For the average law-abiding individual, dittoes are labor-saving and errand-running devices that can also be employed to experience the vicarious thrills of extreme sex and violence. Those who lead more dangerous lives, however, such as private detective Albert Morris, use these additional selves to investigate situations where bodily harm is a likely occurrence, which significantly expands both the scope of Morris’s operations and the probability that at least one of his selves will be in danger at all times.
Unlike those science-fiction authors for whom a faster-than- light drive or time-travel machine offers a quick fix to previously insoluble problems, David Brin presents his technological breakthrough as a somewhat flawed and limited one. Dittoes only have a twenty-four-hour life span, and although they begin their brief careers as an exact copy of their original—or “archie,” short for “archetype”—their subsequent experience can only be shared with an archie through downloading or direct communication. Since Morris’s dittoes are often in danger of physical destruction, this adds yet another element of suspense to the narrative: Will what his ditto has learned be conveyed to him before it dies either a natural or unnatural death? The existence of different kinds of color-coded dittoes ranging from the intellectually gifted blacks to the office worker grays to the sex toy whites, and the narrative’s gradual revelations concerning the ability of some dittoes to develop independent traits also help to make an interestingly complicated concept out of what might, in lesser hands, have been merely a variation on the idea of cloning.
Kiln People begins with Morris in hot pursuit of his old nemesis Beta, a mysterious villain whose illegal dittoing operations Morris has often been able to shut down, but who has himself always eluded capture. The first narrative voice to be encountered is that of one of Morris’s dittoes, a green errand runner who has been sent to spy out Beta’s latest lair and is fleeing from his homicidal henchmen. The fact that “homicidal” is not quite right here—the green is not really human, even though endowed with a human’s thoughts and feelings—points to one of the novel’s characteristic strategies, the high-spirited play with concepts of the human and the nonhuman that forces readers to rethink their assumptions about these categories. In the case of the menaced green, for example, the need to follow his archie’s dangerous instructions is frequently tempered with a concern for self-preservation, even though the green knows that he has at most one day to live; the conflict between duty and discretion, precisely because it is not a “real” problem, plays out at a more philosophical than usual level that permits Brin to explore the situation at length and without melodramatic overtones.
It would be misleading to imply, however, that Kiln People’s concerns are predominantly metaphysical and technological. Although Brin’s Uplift series of novels emphasizes the hard science and massive social dislocation involved in admitting dolphins and chimpanzees to equivalent-to- human status, most of his other fiction—particularly The Postman (1985) and Earth(1990)—feature a more conventional variety of the adventure story in which resolutely heroic protagonists overcome a succession of obstacles on their way to ultimate victory. Thus, Kiln People’s generally interesting portrayal of the dittoing process and its societal and philosophical ramifications is periodically interrupted by mass gun battles and other forms of cinematically spectacular violence, which sometimes seem gratuitous rather than either integral or enhancing to the plot. This is not to say...
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