David Brin,
Kiln People
(Tor, 2002)

David Brin became a prominent figure in science fiction in the 1980s as a result of his Uplift series of novels -- particularly the Nebula and Hugo award-winning Startide Rising in 1983. Over the next decade, aside from The Uplift War, which completed that trilogy, Brin steered clear of series writing and produced a mixed bag of stand-alone novels. I particularly enjoyed The Postman (1985), a post-apocalyptic tale that was far superior to the Kevin Costner film catastrophe it inspired, and Earth (1990), Brin's ambitious near future eco-epic. Glory Season (1993), his "feminist" novel, struck me as a well-intentioned disappointment.

Things seemed to go steeply downhill creatively in the mid-'90s as Brin returned to the Uplift series for three additional books. He also teamed with Gregory Benford and Greg Bear as each wrote one of a trilogy of post-Asimov Foundation novels.

So I was a bit hesitant about launching into Brin's latest novel, Kiln People. The wordplay in the title didn't help convince me that Brin was going to be back on form. But as I read the opening chapters of Kiln People, I became convinced that this was going to be a terrific book, reminiscent of early '60s Dick or Pohl in its tone and packed with a quintessentially science fiction sense of wonder. What if?

The technology at the core of the novel allows a real person, an archie (or archetype), to record consciousness and memories into a "clay" person, a ditto, with a 24-hour lifespan. At the end of 24 hours the memories of the ditto can be downloaded back into the original person so that the archie will have experienced the day from multiple perspectives. A ditto to do the household chores and one to go to the office while the archie is off at the beach -- or, in the case of the book's protagonist, on the job ... "Me, I was one of a vanishing breed -- the employed. My philosophy: why stay in school when you have a marketable skill? You never know when it'll become obsolete."

The story in Kiln People revolves around private investigator Albert Morris and the possible murder of Dr. Yosil Maharal, one of the founders of Universal Kilns, the company that brought ditto technology to the masses. But the mystery is as multi-layered as an onion and the ability to convincingly approach the story from a host of viewpoints, all of whom are Morris, is what I found most enjoyable about reading the first half of Kiln People.

Unfortunately, much like a ditto approaching the end of its 24-hour lifespan, the book begins to fall apart as it moves toward its conclusion. The wordplay incorporated both in the story and in virtually every chapter heading becomes more forced and more annoying -- odd when you consider the following passage: "And so it went, on and on. The sort of childish puzzle-hints that made you groan, both over your own stupidity and the comic book immaturity of it all."

What had promised to be a cleverly modern homage to an earlier generation of science fiction became cliche-ridden and downright silly. We end up with a list of central characters that includes a mad scientist who wants to kill everyone in town to feed his evil scheme and his daughter who suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder, her evil side manifesting itself in her dittos and running amok. Then there's the mad scientist's business partner, a megalomaniacal trillionaire hermit. And facing them all is Albert, the lowly gumshoe who simply will not give up the chase. Sorry, I'm not buying any of it.

Kiln People had loads of potential but ended up feeling as shallow as a Hollywood blockbuster with a super-villain who will not die -- the special effects far more important than a believable plot line.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 21 June 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.