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Parallel Lives
By Amy Sisson

Kiln People
By David Brin
Tor, 460 pages, $25.95

It’s obvious that science fiction allows writers to experiment with unusual ideas, but we don’t necessarily think of it as a vehicle for experimenting with the writing itself. In Kiln People, however, David Brin sets up a science-fiction premise uniquely suited to narrative experimentation: In the not-too-distant future, people regularly make copies of themselves, or “dittos,” by imprinting their brain patterns on disposable clay bodies that expire after 24 hours. Dittos perform the scut work and the hazardous jobs, while their archetypes protect their precious realflesh and upload their dittos’ memories at the end of the day if they feel like it.

But what’s special about the writing? Kiln People is written in first person, with alternating chapters narrated by four different characters who are all versions of the same man. The potential for confusion is great, but Brin has made it remarkably easy to keep straight the who, what, where, why and when of each Albert Morris. In addition, the novelty doesn’t wear off because it’s so well executed.

Morris—the real one—is a private investigator in this near-future world; in fact, with ditto labor so cheap, he belongs to the envied minority of people with actual jobs. As the book opens, one of his green dittos (they’re color-coded by ability levels) is trying to outrun the bad guys so he can upload valuable information to realAlbert. The chase is suspenseful right up until dittoAlbert points out that “I suppose there’s one big problem with my telling this story in first person—the listener knows I made it home in one piece.”

This immediately won me over. Student writers are often discouraged from writing fiction in first person for two reasons: the suspense issue, as expressed by dittoAlbert, and the problem of dispensing information believably, because the reader can’t know anything the narrator doesn’t know. This confession, then, shows that Brin knows these limitations but he’s going to do it anyway and he’s going to make it work. The suspense remains because for all we know, the realAlbert could be killed and a dittoAlbert could be the one to conclude the narrative. The problem of dispensing information is also solved because although each Albert knows only what he knows, the reader gets the benefit of their collective knowledge.

Although this book is primarily a mystery that goes to the core of the ditto- production industry, Brin takes the opportunity to expand on some pet concepts he’s explored elsewhere, such as the loss of privacy that comes with advanced technology. He’s also fond of pointing out that ethical issues often generate fanatics who are driven by the moral high they get from self- righteousness. In Kiln People, the ethical controversy is quickly apparent: One faction believes that dittos are an abomination against nature and should be destroyed, while another believes that dittos’ lives are sacred and enslaving them is wrong. Brin also examines less obvious implications of ditto technology, such as proxy warfare as a spectator sport and a whole new way of defining monogamous relationships.

In some areas, unfortunately, Kiln People takes itself a little too seriously. It’s possible to examine all manner of metaphysical questions without providing specific answers about God or souls. An author has the right to take that direction, of course, but to supply any kind of God/soul/ supernatural explanation or conclusion in a science-fiction story is to risk alienating an audience that typically doesn’t appreciate it. In any event, Brin spends so much time on this material near the end of the book that the pace crawls to a standstill; this book could have benefited from chopping at least 50 pages. There’s also one dreadful chapter in which Brin manufactures a reason to write only in dialogue, so that the characters unnecessarily explain things to each other in the clunkiest way possible.

Nonetheless, this book is very much worth reading. The three dittos’ thoughts are almost identical to begin with, but diverge widely as they experience the same day very differently, and Brin makes us care about each of their fates. Each chapter has a title and preliminary description, such as “It’s Not Easy Being Green . . . or how Tuesday’s third ditto discovers sibling rivalry . . . ” Some of the puns are cringeworthy, but this is a fun, stylistic device, and in this book it actually imparts essential information.

Of course, not only is ditto technology unfeasible, it’s awfully complicated compared to simple robotics or even regular cloning, which means we have to suspend disbelief before the book even starts. But a specific technology doesn’t have to be likely or even possible to make writing about its implications worthwhile. It’s the exercise that’s important, and in Kiln People Brin reaches beyond the ideas to the actual craft of writing itself.


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