Future Golems

Kelly messaged me one morning: She and Louie would like me to read Kiln People, and then post a review. Louie had read the book, and thought I might enjoy it. Kelly had not read it, and will decide if it’s worth reading based on my review.

OK, here goes.

Kiln People, by David Brin, was published in 2002.

The 560+ page novel starts off with: “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.

Kiln PeopleThe book jumps right into the story, with all its future-speak. One of Albert’s dittos is being assaulted by a gang of Beta’s dittos. ditAlbert manages to escape and find a group of Albert’s friends just before his 24-hour life ends. The ditto’s body falls apart, but his brain is intact, so realAlbert is able to inload.

Albert Morris is a private detective. He lives in a time when people are able to make clay copies of themselves, fairly cheaply. These copies (called “dittos” or “golems”) are “outloaded” with the personality, and all the memories, of their original (referred to as “rigs” or “archies” – as in “archetype”) up to the time of the duplication. The ditto has a life span of one day. The ditto and the rig lead separate lives, forming two sets of memories. At the end of the ditto’s life, the rig can, if they wish, “inload” the ditto’s memories into their own. A rig can use a ditto in order to experience risky things without the risks, or a rig can create a ditto to clean the house while the rig goes out and has fun. “No need even to tell it what to do. It already knows. It’s you.

Why choose between going to the office or taking the day off, when you can do both?

It’s a world with nine billion rigs and ten to twenty billion golems.

Besides the obvious connection to the Jewish legend of the Golem, the book draws some not-so-obvious historical analogies that make the idea of making clay copies of yourself seem like a logical step in the evolution of human technology.

Because of the dangerous nature of his work, detective Albert Morris makes frequent use of dittos. For years, he’s been trying to catch an archie known only as “Beta”, who has been kidnapping dittos in order to make bootleg dittos, in violation of copyright laws.

Albert Morris specializes in ditnapping. Then, one day, he’s hired to investigate an actual kidnapping. It’s not a ditnapping – it’s the kidnapping of an archie. The victim is one of the co-founders of Universal Kilns, the company that created the society-changing technology behind dittos. The victim’s family is sure he’s been kidnapped, even though, after a month, there’s been no ransom demands. The police are sure he’s simply run away from the world. (Given the ubiquity of  private lens and publicams, it seems impossible that anyone could run away without witnesses.)

realAlbert and his ditAlberts eventually find that the mystery goes much further.

Kiln People is a noir detective story. (Albert Morris even wears a trench coat and fedora.) It’s a science fiction story based on some hard science. It’s a well-crafted world that shows the author put a lot of thought into all the little implications of creating copies of yourself. (It’s best to avoid eye contact with your golem. If you inload, you’re going to remember that glance from both sides, and most people find that experience too upsetting – similar to déjà vu, but a whole lot worse.)

Every time I’d wonder, “What’s to prevent someone from…”, the book has an answer for how the system can’t be misused. This book even has answers for problems I hadn’t even thought of. David Brin has it all mapped out.

Kiln People is also full of humor. For instance, there are these things called “dinobuses” – awesome public transport vehicles with a cockpit attached to a long, mobile neck. “Every kid dreams of becoming a bus driver when he grows up,” the book tells us.

Kiln People is full of puns. At a free medical clinic for dittos, a sign reads: “Helping the Kneady.” (By the way, why have a medical facility for temporary beings? The book answers that question, too.)

Kiln People was a slow read for me. A lot of ideas, philosophy, and world-building gets crammed into a day in the life of a ditto. The book switches points of view between realAlbert and the various ditAlberts. A scene involving a ditAlbert will be presented later from a different ditAlbert’s viewpoint, with a different set of knowledge, and yet it’s all Albert Morris. I got lost a few times.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I would have enjoyed it a little more if it were a couple of hundred pages shorter. There were times when it felt like the story was wrapping up, and that we’ve solved the mystery, and I couldn’t imagine how it could keep going, and yet it kept going.

Do I recommend Kiln People? I felt it was overly long, and tough to follow at times (which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily), but the cleverness and the telling of the story far outweighed any quibbles I had. So, yes, I recommend it.

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Real life imitates art: I started reading Kiln People on a paperback I borrowed from the library. The thickness of the book made it a little awkward to hold during a bus commute. So I downloaded the eBook version to my phone – much better. So, for a while, I was reading the same novel on two copies. Which of these two copies was the archie and which was the ditto, I wondered. (There were no holds on the book, so I didn’t feel guilty about having checked out two copies.) I eventually returned the paperback, and read the eBook exclusively. When I was a little over 1200 ePages into the 1409 ePage eBook, I had just two days left on my loan. I couldn’t renew the loan, but I could place a hold for another copy. I was told I was first in line for the one copy that was currently checked out – that copy, of course, was checked out by me. Whenever I returned it, I would be able to borrow it. It was as if I was two versions of me.

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