Kiln People - David Brin (2002)

David Brin is a consistently entertaining and thought provoking author, one who is not afraid to tackle the big issues. In Kiln People he takes on race, religion, immortality, what it means to be human and the nature of the soul. No small task, that, but Brin accomplishes it with great aplomb and very nearly no missteps.

The book is set in a moderately near future world, albeit one that has been completely transformed by "dittotech" the ability to literally imprint the psyche, or perhaps the soul, onto a clay golem which can then go and perform for a day, returning to "inload" the experience into the organic original. In this world, people can live their lives in parallel. Brin clearly spent time and effort speculating what effect this would have on society and culture, with the result that the world is internally consistent and believable, once that initial postulate is accepted. One central shift is that with cheap(ish) mass duplication possible, second best is obsolete. If you want to hire the best, say, carpenter, you can. So can I, and so can everyone else. All at the same time. Most people therefore are on the public dole in one way or another. Those with unique skillsets are the only employed.

One such is Albert Morris, a private detective (or "ditective") who brings his unique talents to his specific niche. Drawn into a spiralling conspiracy by his pursuit of a "ditnapper" and copyright violator, he finds himself facing off against crazed idustrialists and mad scientists in up to five or six bodies at a time, each of whom wrestles in his own (one can't say its own, even if they are clay) way with issues of individuality and mortality - and morality.

The plot swoops and turns diving into corners of a society which isn't ours, but mirrors it in many ways. The final resolution is suitably epic, if faintly unsatisfying in one or two small ways. The journey, however, is eminently satisfying.

One of the great things about science-fiction is that by positing worlds which can be as "unrealistic" as the author wishes, he or she can look at deeper truths from a different perspective and without some of the emotional baggage that accompanies more realistic fiction. Sure, in Kiln People the underclass is artificial and explicitly non-human, but that non-human argument has been used many times before (and is to this day) to excuse the oppression of races or religions or nationalities. By twisting issues from their normal orientation, prejudice is avoiding, allowing tolerance to slip in undetected. That is why science-fiction, good science-fiction at least, is almost always subversive - it challenges the status quo by changing the perspective.

And this is good sci-fi.

Overall Grade: A-

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