Saturday, June 13, 2015

This Too-Mortal Clay, and This, Too

Review: Kiln People by David Brin


After a decade spent exploring his Uplift Saga (with detours for The Postman and his contribution to the Second Foundation prequel trilogy, Foundation's Triumph), David Brin has written another stellar entry in original, thought-provoking science fiction.
"More than any writer I know, David Brin can take scary, important problems and turn them sideways, revealing wonderful opportunities. This talent shows strongly in Kiln People..."  ——Vernor Vinge
In Brin's novel Kiln People, the home computer and home FAX machine have been joined by another widely-distributed technology: the home copier. It's not for copying documents onto paper, though, it's to copy your soul's "Standing Wave" onto a clay "ditto." People have become used to living multiple lives, sending their duplicates out into the world to clean their toilets, mow their lawns, work at their boring jobs——and also dance (and brawl) in their night-clubs, walk their streets and star in their porn movies, kill their enemies (in duplicate only, of course); even go home to a boring wife and bratty kids.

In the best sense of hard science fiction, Brin has explored all the implications of this technology. To start, if your soul is what is impressed on the blank clay ditto, what does that imply about people who are unable to duplicate themselves? In this society, they are shunned as "soulless." And what happens when the original, "real" person dies before his duplicate expires? His "ghost" is still embodied in the duplicate, able to revenge his murder or mourn his natural death, but unable to be copied into another ditto blank or load its memories into another person.

The soul is seen as separate from the personality, as well; people routinely create "ebony" duplicates capable of great focus and dedication to a single intellectual task, then "inload" the memories (and information) gleaned from that ditto's efforts. It is also separate from sensuality; the "ivory" ditto carries a full sensorium to allow sexual contact at one remove—you can't catch an STD if the only thing you take from an encounter is the memory! One character is so capable at imbuing her ivories with her own "smoldering sensuality" that her ivory dittos are routinely "ditnapped" by the criminal Beta.

Ditto tech has implications for warfare, too—armies are composed of thousands of duplicates of a few highly-trained and capable warriors, who set their souls into the quiescent clay, which can then be frozen and stored ready to fight when required. In a bizarre mirror of Robot Wars, would-be warriors create fighting ditto shapes and contend in an arena to "try out" for the ranks of soldiery.

For many people, ditto technology means they have no place in the working world. Instead, vast numbers are paid a "purple wage," and left to rely on their dittos for entertainment. So large parts of the city are given over to the recreation of re-creation, in which the copies of ordinary citizens can pretend to be Montagues and Capulets, or Ozzie and Harriet.

Albert Morris is lucky. His dittos rarely go "frankie," running off to live their own short-lived lives as they please. They all come supplied with his overwhelming curiosity and desire to get to the bottom of things, so he has a thriving business as a private eye. And while not all of his gray dittos get home in one piece, they manage to get back often enough that he is one of the best in the business. It's why Geneen Wannamaker, the porn ditto queen, and Aeneas Kaolin, the owner of Universal Kilns (monopoly maker of ditto blanks) have both hired copies of Morris to help them solve their problems.

Brin tells the story from the multiple first-person perspective required by this technology, weaving the disparate tales of the two gray dittos Morris has assigned to work for Wannamaker and Kaolin; plus his very first frankie, a green ditMorris that did not want to clean toilets that day, as well as realMorris. A witty line at the beginning of each chapter tells us which of the Morris avatars is speaking, and Brin has warped the language in believable ways to incorporate personal duplication.

I loved this story, and especially liked the clever way Brin named his characters. Two (Kaolin and Montmorillin) are named for types of clay. Two more (to tell would be a spoiler) share names with people in the golem myths. Several others bear the names of dolls or puppets. Brin has also borrowed behaviors observed in the explosions of social media, Internet-surfing and blogging, and then applied them to his fictional technology in ways that make sense.

This is a mystery story wrapped in a roller-coaster of punning energy and technology gone right in unexpected ways. I recommend it highly.