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Thursday, January 22, 2004  

Reading: Hugo nominee is a worthy sci-fi novel

The novel is mature, so exploited in its potential that nerve is required to dare to test its limits. In his latest novel, Kiln People, speculative fiction writer David Brin, best known for The Postman, does just that. Characterization and plot are stretched and reshaped in innovative ways.

In a future at least a century from now, people are no longer limited to using just their flesh and blood bodies. They can inhabit the forms of clay dolls imprinted by a machine that copies their 'soul waves.' Just about everyone has his own home kiln where he can produce his own golems daily. The major restriction on kiln people is they survive for only one day. At the end of that period, they can be inloaded to the brain so the original shares their experiences, or discarded.

Detective Albert Morris makes a modest living tracking down copyright thieves who steal the clay facsimiles, called dittos, of famous people, usually artists, and make cheap copies for resell. His chief client is Gineen Wammaker, an interactive pornography star who regularly requests his services in retrieving dittoes of herself from Beta, a master copyright thief. Morris' girlfriend, Clara, is a part-time soldier in modern wars, which appear to be based on computer games, but have real life consequences. His best friend, Pal, is a paraplegic who has a capacity for imprinting novel, not necessarily humaniform, golems. Both become important to the plot in the second half of the book.

Morris' career seems to be on the upswing when he is hired to investigate the murder of an executive at Universal Kilns, the Microsoft-like corporation that produces most of the clay blanks for the dittoing process. But, is Morris really operating in a new realm when he accepts the assignment and delegates several of his dittos to it? He begins to wonder when he keeps in encountering golems of his nemesis, Beta, as he is consumed by the investigation.

The detective's facsimiles provide the fulcrum through which the reader develops an understanding of life in a ditto dominated world. Hired in his real form, Morris sends a gray ditto, the type that performs most administrative work, to interview the decedent's partner. Another gray is dispatched to a meeting with Wammaker, which results in orders to penetrate Universal Kilns in search of illegal technology. That is a conflict of interest, so that gray cannot contact either realAlbert or other dittos of him. Meanwhile, Morris' green ditto is relegated to doing the kind of things greens do -- house-cleaning and shopping. (That won't last long. Unbeknown to Morris, he has produced a 'Frankenstein,' a freak golem that is self-directed.) A black ditto is imprinted to perform the intense analytical work involved in tracking the disappearance and subsequent death of the UK co-founder, Yasil Maharal, who invented dittotech. In following the dittoes, the reader explores different facets of Morris' character and how they interact with his world. That world is one in which most experience has been relegated to dittos and real people attempt to fill their empty lives with various kinds of entertainment. It is the philosophical question: 'What would you do if you did not have to do anything?' that haunts the novel.

Without realizing it, Morris has stumbled into the most important conspiracy in his world. Who will control the direction of dittotech is being decided and the candidates are anything but wholesome. It isn't long before Morris, and several of his dittos, find themselves on the defensive among the nefarious players as they try to solve the mystery of who killed Maharal -- and save their real and imitation lives. Clara and Pal are needed to help save realAlbert from other people, real and not, who have no qualms about killing him or millions of humans to reach their ultimate objective.

Brin's daring and the book's flaws are related. It can be difficult to keep up with where each Morris is, and, of just as much significance, what each Morris knows. Instead of an integrated personality, the reader must try to make sense of the Several Faces of Albert -- and of the antagonists, too. The metaphysical nature of 'soul imprinting' makes it a difficult concept to grasp. Time becomes so nebulous the reader is sometimes not sure when it is that actions take place.

However, the overall effect of Brin's experiments is to produce a memorable novel. Kiln People, a runner-up for the Hugo Award, is well worth reading.

1:30 PM