by David Brin



491pp/$25.95/January 2002

Kiln People
Cover by Jim Burns

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

David Brin has apparently had a lot of fun writing his complex and challenging novel, Kiln People, about a society in which people can create duplicates of themselves, golems, who had a lifespan of twenty-four hours.  At the end of their lives, the memories of these golems can be downloaded back into the original, so he or she can know everything all versions of him or her did over the course of the day,  Against this background, Brin has constructed a detective story which begins with the trappings of a standard gumshoe story, but quickly expands.

Albert Morris is a detective, whose rare gift of being able to create many and accurate golems aides him in his chosen profession, although he has found himself stymied by the mysterious ditnapper (a ditto, or dit-, is another term for the golems), Beta.  A seemingly-successful raid on one of Beta's operations brings Morris to the attention of the trillionaire Aeneas Polom, of Universal Kilns, the premiere manufacturer of golem technology.  Polom's friend and partner, Yosil Maharal, the inventor of the golem, has recently disappeared and Polom seeks Morris's aid in finding him.

Brin's plot gets underway from page one of the novel and continues to built and mutate in a Byzantine manner throughout the novel.  To add to the sense of confusion, the story is told from the point of view of the original Albert Morris as well as several of his dittos.  This means that various aspects of Albert know different things about the cases, which may tie together if Albert can ever manage to upload his golems' memories to his own.  However, Brin handles the different Alberts well, with the result that the reader is generally able to keep straight which Albert has done what and what each Albert knows.

Early in the novel, Brin lays down the rules of how the golems work, in detail, so the reader will know as each rule is broken through the course of the novel.  However, breaking the rules is neither gratuitous nor capricious.  Brin has clearly thought through the reasons for the transgressions as plot points and Albert, and his various dittos, are surprised to learn that the rules can be broken.  Similarly, although Brin and his characters are focused on the detection plot, the novel includes hints and comments about the changes wrought to society by the golem technology.

Kiln People uses the golems as earlier novels have used robots, a source of inexpensive labor, both menial and otherwise.  Brin demonstrates an understanding and respect for both golem and robot literature which has gone before.  The novel is full of references to the Jewish golem tales, many of which may go over the heads of those not familiar with the legends.  His recasting of the rules evokes the robot stories of Isaac Asimov and there is a strong undercurrent of the creation against its creator motif of such stories as Frankenstein.

Kiln People is a strong novel, as are Brin's other stand-alone books, although it doesn't entirely work.  Brin seems more interested in speculating about the science fictional aspects of the world and using them to create a Byzantine complexity to the plot which means that even as the detective story grows and mutates, it loses some of its power and interest.  The reader becomes more concerned with the ultimate outcome of the technology than in whether or not any criminals are brought to justice. 

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