Pros: Novel concepts, exciting story, philosophical explorations, loaded with humour and insight
Cons: Sometimes a bit much to wrap your head around. Proceed with caution!
"Look back at all the tradgedies that marred human life, ever since our dim beginnings. Sickness stole your loved ones. Starvation scythed your tribe. Blighted by ignorance and coarse of speech, you couldn't even share what little you managed to learn. Or take the frustrating clumsiness of your hands and slowness of feet. Or the curse of having to be just one place at a time, when innumerable things needed doing! None of these problems were solved by the prescriptions of shamans and priests. Not by patronizing mystics or condescending monks. Technology! That's what made things better."
In Kiln People, celebrated SciFi author David Brin offers up wry satire and unmitigated technoboosterism in a novel of the far future, a future which has undergone many disasters and social upheavals. The Cybertech and Biotech revolutions have run their course, fulfilled their maximal potential. The newest wave of technology to rearrange human society is soulistics, the means by which one's consciousness can be imprinted into short-lived clay duplicates - marvels of bioengineering known as golems or dittoes.
It's an amazing vision. One imprints one's memories and personality, that unique spark of consciousness referred to as the soul standing wave, into any of a variety of multicolored dittoes, each with their own abilities - black for intense intellect and focus, grey for human relations, green for utilitarian strength, white for sensual pleasure. These copies of you then go about the routine or not-so-routine business of your life, while your real body, your "archie" (archetype) or "rig" (original), stays at home doing whatever safe and pleasant activities it wishes, exercising to ensure a longer lifespan. Then, after 24 hours, the golem's energy is spent and it returns home to download a day's worth of memories into your head before dissolving into an undifferentiated slurry.
This idea may seem bizarre and troubling to you paleolithic one-lifers, but in the setting of the novel it is already an established fact of life. Everyone has and imprinter and a 'Kiln', and weekly orders a fresh supply of blank dittoes from Universal Kilns Inc. People can hold down a dozen jobs without sacrificing even an hour of precious leisure time, and golem bodies in innumerable shapes and sizes have made even the most dangerous and labour-intense jobs easy to perform. Unemployment is continually on the rise, but a near-infinity of inexpensive labour has sent world prosperity skyrocketing and allows the unemployed to become perpetual students or hobbyists. Disposable bodies have removed all the dangers of casual sex and drug use, and those who feel the urge to take part in violent hunting games or death duels can feel free - as long as no real people are endangered; many 'experience addicts' spend days upon days in pursuit of new perversions or intense adventures with all the verisimilitude of real life. Entire 'communities' of fake people spend their time in soap-operatic recreations of life in past eras. War has become a spectator sport, as battalions of ditto soldiers tear each other to shreds for the entertainment of the masses. Racism has been all but eliminated by the emergence of this underclass of self-made slaves, who have no right to complain at their second-class status because, after all, it was their own choice and they're just going to dissolve at the end of the day anyways.
Enter Albert Morris, a professional detective who sends dittoes into danger to get the goods on the bad guys while 'realAlbert' spends the day catching rays and working in his garden. A bust on the golemtown operation of criminal mastermind Beta, a notorious 'ditto pirate' who kidnaps copies of famous entertainers and then sells cheap second-hand dittoes for personal use, is only the beginning of a tale of conspiracy and intrigue weighing in at a hefty 550-plus pages. As one copy of Albert Morris investigated the disappearance of a brilliant Universal Kilns researcher, another is sent on an industrial espionage junket by a seller of high-class, high-quality S&M dolls; and yet another, a 'frankie' (frankenstein) who has come suddenly to resent his creator's control over his life, escapes a day-long life of cleaning toilets and mowing the lawn to search for his own meaning.
The plot quickly spirals out of control, as the conspiracy reveals its ever-deeper layers, and realAlbert and his dittoes are subjected to bioterrorism, missile attacks, interrogation, kidnapping, and other indignities at the hands of a mad genius out to challenge God himself.
Brin writes in a humourous an earthy style which imitates all the classic tropes of detective fiction in a bizarre future society. The text is liberally sprinkled with puns, social commentary, and sci-fi in-jokes for the dedicated reader; and yet it is not without its emotional moments and philosophical explorations. An essentially progressive sentiment shines through every page, a conviction that human knowledge will forever continue to advance, that the solution to the problems created by technology is more and better technology, and that even such metaphysical ideas as God and the human soul are simply areas for further scientific exploration. There is continual fun poked at the tides of social change, and the fact that today's next big thing is tomorrow's old news. All this, in addition to a nail-biting plot filled with hairpin turns and told from multiple angles by characters that reveal depth and individuality, even though they are all at base the same person. This novel is a hell of a read, one of the most original concepts I've seen in years, told by an absolute master.