Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1671
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....
(The entire section contains 1671 words.)
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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 that these purple passages are badly written or devoid of a certain degree of febrile excitement, but they do not, on the whole, add a great deal to what is in most other respects an intriguing story of sudden technological breakthrough and its unforeseen consequences.
As Albert Morris wends his way along the trail of clues that he hopes will lead to Beta’s capture, he creates several dittoes whose first-person accounts of their activities provide an effective demonstration of the possibilities of multiple selfhood. There are opportunities for humor as well as drama here, and the narrative makes good use of them: An anxious client who contacts Morris and asks, “Could you please send a you over here right away?” is one of many examples of Brin’s flair for comic invention. The profusion of multiple but psychically connected narrators will force readers to stay alert for switches in point of view, however, as the complexities of Morris’s investigation lead him to ditto green, gray, and black selves who each take turns at pushing the plot forward.
The course of Morris’s investigation alters when he begins to pick up indications that Universal Kilns, the corporation that holds all the patents on the dittoing process, is trying to suppress new breakthroughs in the field. In the early days of dittoing technology, it was hoped that refinements in the copying of archies would eventually make it feasible for people to reproduce themselves ad infinitum and thus achieve personal immortality; the brief life span of dittoes and the fact that they cannot themselves be successfully replicated, however, seem to have established that the death of the original archie body still marks the end point of human existence. It turns out, however, that some of Universal Kiln’s scientists have been experimenting with the possibility of duplicating human souls, who will survive the demise of their bodily hosts and can be kept alive through complex manipulations of the immaterial forces of which they are composed.
It is at this point that Brin’s explanation of the science that underlies his fiction opts for mystification rather than intelligibility. His earlier descriptions of dittoing procedures are so graphically detailed and so supported by credible accounts of the technical processes involved that the reader accepts these developments as a logical consequence of humanity’s growing biological expertise. Kiln People’s rationale for soul duplication, however, veers off into essentially occult invocations of mysterious forces that are not well grounded in any scientifically valid body of knowledge, and the result is a significant loss of narrative plausibility. Like those episodes of the Star Trek television series in which a new basic principle of physics is invented in order to resolve a plot difficulty, Brin here chooses a quick and all-too-easy fix for a concept that requires a much more cogent and comprehensive explanation.
That this does not seriously disrupt the novel’s forward momentum says something for its author’s ability to keep his cast of characters and their ever-increasing multiple selves in absorbing as well as entertaining motion. In addition to Albert Morris, a worthy addition to the long list of hard-boiled private eyes who star in so much American genre fiction, there are several other characters who add human interest to Kiln People’s intriguing technological speculations. Aeneas Kaolin, the founder of Universal Kilns, has accumulated so much power and influence that his ambitions have careened out of control and into areas where mere mortals have usually feared to tread; Clara Gonzalez, the significant other in Morris’s life, combines professional soldiering and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity into a career that is refreshingly independent of her partner’s; Malachai Montmorillin, the literal “Pal” who serves as Morris’s sidekick on most of his investigations, adds that element of wisecracking repartee without which any story involving male bonding in the face of adversity would seem incomplete.
Although these characters all have their moments, the most interesting personage in the novel is Ritu Maharal, the Universal Kilns executive whose enigmatic presence steals all of her scenes with Morris and whose fate turns out be intimately connected with Aeneas Kaolin’s efforts to achieve psychical immortality. Brin sets this up very nicely by introducing Maharal as one of the standard clichés of the hard-boiled detective novel, the distraught young woman who begs the private eye to help her find a missing person—in this case, her father, the scientist Dr. Yosil Maharal. Conventionally, the narrative should now proceed to feature Morris working toward a solution while he gradually falls in love with Maharal, an assumption that is first heightened but then deflated by a hilarious scene in which Morris and Maharal experience coitus interruptus when they confuse their real and dittoed selves. What actually happens, however, is that Ritu herself becomes the focus of Morris’s investigation as he follows a complicated trail that eventually leads to a stunning revelation about her involvement with Beta, the evil genius Morris has spent years attempting to apprehend. Since the exact nature of the Maharal-Beta relationship is the key to the narrative’s denouement, it will remain unrevealed here, in the expectation that some of the readers of this review will wish to sample Kiln People’s pleasures for themselves; rest assured, however, that the novel’s conclusion is a powerful and surprising one.
The advent of relatively simple and inexpensive cloning procedures at the end of the twentieth century has made the sort of world that Brin imagines as the near future a readily believable one. Although it is possible to fault the narrative for its overreliance on mass mayhem and the inadequacy of its treatment of soul duplication, on the whole this is a worthy and entertaining addition to the author’s already impressive body of work. In keeping with David Brin’s penchant for punning, it seems appropriate to conclude with the observation that Kiln People is a tasty science-fiction confection whose consistency is far more than half-baked.
Sources for Further Study
Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life 21 (January/February, 2002): 27.
Booklist 98 (February 1, 2002): 930.
Kirkus Reviews 69 (November 15, 2001): 1588.
Library Journal 126 (November 1, 2001): 99.
Nature 414 (December 20/ December 27, 2001): 848.
New Scientist 173 (January 12, 2002): 45.
Publishers Weekly 248 (December 17, 2001): 69.