Pros: Style, speed, mystery; with a profound examination of history and technology and desires snuck in.
Cons: Scientific premise isn't terribly likely.
"First Galileo and Copernicus battled to free astronomy from priests who declared the entire cosmos off limits to human understanding. Then Newton, Brotzmann, and Einstein liberated physics. For a while, religions claimed that _life_ was too mysterious for anyone except the Creator Himself to understand - til we analyzed the genome and commenced designing new species for the lab. Today, most babies get some kind of optimizing gene therapy, before or after conception, and nobody objects".
"Why would they?", I asked, momentarily puzzled. "Never mind..."
Think, Albert. Look back at all the tragedies 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 in just one place at a time, when innumerable things needed doing!.... None of these problems were solved by patronizing mystics or condescending monks. Technology. That's what made things better!
It's deceptive to start a review of David Brin's Kiln People by quoting some of the talkier passages. In the tradition of John Varley's breezy Steel Beach (a reasonable nominee as the best science fiction novel ever written), Kiln People presents centuries of technological leaps and complete societal transformations as taken-almost-for-granted elements of a mystery novel, a thriller even; and the chapter titles are bad puns. The book's own chosen starting place reads
1: A Good Head for Wine (or how Monday's green ditto brings home fond memories of the river....)
It's hard to stay cordial while fighting for your life, even when your life doesn't amount to much. Even when you're just a lump of clay.
Within the short chapter, we're exposed to criminals firing guns at the protagonist (a copy of a detective named Albert Morris); to the criminals' desperation in firing at him through a crowd that includes real people, which would be a serious crime if any were hit; to dodges and obstacles that depend on the relative statuses of different colors of clay beings; to the clay-lump's good fortune at being equipped by Albert with a subvocalizing narration/recorder ability and unusually long breath-retention ability, allowing him to stay underwater for large distances; to his arrival at a houseboat party.
"Oh, sweet mother Gaia", her voice swung quickly to realization. "Jameson! Will you please phone up Clara Gonzales, over on the Catalina Baby? Tell her that her goddam boyfriend has misplaced another of his dittoes... and he better come pick it up right now!"....
I don't remeber anything after that, but I'm told that my head rolled to a stop just short of the ice chest where the champagne was chilling. Some dinner guest was good enough to toss it inside, next to a very nice bottle of Dom Perignon '38.
David Brin's novels are widely varied. There's the hyperearnest six-volume cosmic sweep of the Uplift Saga; there's the wonderful and short post-apocalypse fable the Postman, later mutilated by the always well-meaning Kevin Costner; there's Kiln People itself, his first real effort to slip humor among his deep thoughts. The constant element of Brin's novels is that he is, in his oddly realistic way, an optimist. Which is to say, the Postman is a story of hope and rebuilding; it's just one in which 99% of humanity has already died and more is about to. Or that Earth is a bright-eyed, liberal internationalist portrayal of a sanely-constructed world order for the late 21st century, except that it's also a thriller about planet Earth literally getting blown up.
In Kiln People, then, we learn that while the current governmental order _we_ know wasn't a crowning success -- much of the 21st century was spent in depression and in pollution-based or climactic catastrophes -- statesmen were able to turn the tide after science came to the rescue. The key wasn't cybernetics, or nanotechnology, a couple of overoptimistic dreams from many decades back. The key was the discovery of the Standing Soul Wave, which made possible the invention of dittoes. With the right equipment, made by Universal Kilns or any of its patent-licensing competitors, anyone could imprint an up-to-date copy of their brain (memories, desires, emotions, personality tics) onto a creature made of clay, which would live for one day and, if desired, upload its memories back into the original person. Suddenly, for the first time, people could be in two (or ten) places at once.
The social upheaval brought about was enormous, of course. On the upside, people could shunt off real work (housework, factory work) onto copies of themselves, and refuse to upload any of those dittoes' memories if the work was dull or painful. On the downside, of course, that made most real people unnecessary. Why make one copy of everyone when the factory owners would be much more sensible making a bunch of copies of the really _good_ workers? Why have hundreds of lawyers in Boston alone, when there could be fifteen lawyers in hundreds of bodies? Labor unions, long feeble, got together in country after country to smash the new ditto replacements.
But as the original Luddites learned, you can't really keep down a technology that allows people to do anything they dream of doing. With an endless supply of efficient clay workers making the economy rich, a "purple wage" could be created to let the masses of the untalented live, and subsidized dittoing allowed most of them to live two places at once. Violence games could become voluntary: experience the wildest sports of the Romans without hurting anyone real! Monogamy became a more flexible concept (if your ditto has sex with someone else's ditto, is that adultery? fantasy? masturbation?), although many couples, like Albert and Clara, still choose to stick with it. (Ditto-to-ditto sex is often allowed if you don't upload the memories to your real self; but if you don't upload the memories to your real self, what was the point?)
We learn, in little conversations scattered throughout, that many rational means beyond the purple wage have been taken to deal with the upheavals. War, for example, has become a team sport, practiced at scheduled locations with agreed-on stakes and fought by massive supplies of imprinted clay dittoes of real soldiers. (Albert's girlfriend Clara is a soldier for the Pacific Empowerment Zone) Criminal conspiracies have been largely eliminated by two things: a massive network of surveillance cameras, and the Henchmen Act, which gives gigantic financial rewards for whistleblowers who expose criminal activities while invalidating "I was just following orders" as an excuse. Crime against dittoes is a civil matter, resolved by automatic fines and actually quite common in some areas; crime against real people is a serious criminal matter, and thus increasingly rare.
Indeed, dittoing is perhaps the only thing that makes criminal conspiracies possible at all anymore: if you can't trust more than three or four other people to resist the temptations of the Henchman Act, the only way to get a good conspiracy going is to have a few dozen handy copies of yourself and your couple of trusted associates. The first chapter introduces Albert's long rivalry with the criminal mastermind Beta ("It used to be that a hero's ultimate satisfaction was in hearing his enemy's dying words; Beta and I had watched each other die too many times already"). But he lives in a time where one criminal mastermind at a time should be plenty.
The problem is this: Universal Kilns's tycoon Aeneas Kaolin has many enemies. There are, of course, the reactionary crazies led by James Gadarene, who refuse ditto technology and believe fake souls are evil. There's the opposite end of the loony-bin, Farshid Lum's liberationists, who believe that dittoes, one-day lifespan and everything, should be given equal rights to humans ("'Synthetic' is a Social Slur!", read the signs, or "End the Slavery of Clay People"). Beta's crimes involve the pirating of dittoes for resale, cutting into UK's profit margins. Geena Wannamaker, who uses ditto technology to run a new and more perverted kind of porn industry, is an enemy of Kaolin because of Kaolin's old-fashioned support of anti-perversion legislation. And -- although this part makes no immediate sense -- Albert quickly senses something fishy going on between Kaolin and his top research scientist, Yosil Maharal. One of Albert's dittoes is sent to a call by Yosil's daughter to investigate the true-murder of Yosil's real body; yet ditAlbert is faced with puzzling behavior and submerged hostilities from both Kaolin and from one of Yosil's "ghosts", a ditto who's day-old lifespan still has him outlasting his creator.
The mystery itself has the double virtue of being (1) complex, full of twists and turns and shifting alliances (the enemy of my enemy is the friend of the other enemy of my other enemy), and (2) uncovering progressively larger stakes. Kiln People also uses its SF premise to shine in its storytelling form. Each chapter tells you which version of Albert is narrating, and we go back and forth between four (on average) different versions of Albert -- each with different sets of information and different recent experiences from which to reason. I don't think there's anything remotely easy about solving the mystery before Albert does; but Brin has made it wonderfully _possible_ to outsmart the hero without actually being smarter, simply because you can know what all four of him know, whereas none of him do.
The characters allow Brin a wide range of moods. Pal, whose real body has no lower half but whose clay bodies are weasels and gnats, is a smart-aleck who keeps the mood cheerful and light. Ritu Maharal, Yosil's daughter, leads Albert into a suspicious number of classic action scenes. Yosil's ghost is a mad scientist, full of helpful soliloquies that sometimes explain the mystery's elements but often just get some ideas off Brin's annoyed mind: for example, dismissing the late-20th-century idea that old "Venus figurines" prove that cavepeople worshipped a Gaian earth-mother (Brin-as-Yosil argues persuasively that the "Venus figurines" were worshipped in exactly the same way, for the same reason, that naked-woman playing cards and Asia Carrera would be worshipped in later eras).
Kaolin, meanwhile, serves as both the familiar archetype of rich-man-who-can-argue-by-buying-and-selling-every-one-of-ya, and as a tragic Henry Ford figure. By which I mean, Henry Ford used his riches, late in life, on the grounds-up creation of exactly the sorts of villages -- closely-built, clean, full of porch-sitting conversationalists and narrow roads -- that his own perfection of the popular automobile had made obselete. Kaolin's dislike of the excesses of dittohood (as represented by Geena Wannamaker) makes Kaolin as valid a suspect as anyone else in the mischief that goes on.
And yes, as in Earth, Brin is putting the future of the entire planet and human race at stake. Yes, he does so to clay-referencing chapter headings like "Glazed and Confused", "A China Syndrome", and "the Dit and the Pendulum". Yes, he has realAlbert make the crucial decision to stop acting like a generic action hero -- too stubborn to call for help -- just a split-second before calling for help becomes impossible and he has to act like a generic action hero. Yes, one of the defining plot points turns on realAlbert's decision about how desperately he wants to have sex with Clara.
Yet the Kiln People also manages to find the common ground between Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End (one of the most optimistic SF classics ever written) and John Barnes's Kaleidoscope Century (definitely the most pessimistic), and use the resonance of both of them. I think a healthy chaos is good for an intellectual tour-de-force. I'm not sure this is Brin's greatest novel; for all that the Standing Soul Wave's implications are examined in great depth, rigor, and honesty, it might be fair to point out that the Standing Soul Wave is a silly excuse for science. But Kiln People also a great novel about who we are _now_, and what we want, and how we got that way. It moves too fast to rub that fact in your face. I respect that.