Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Finished reading Kiln People

Last night I finished reading David Brin's book Kiln People at long last.

I enjoyed the book a great deal. It's not quite on a par with Brin's best work; I'd place it just a little below Glory Season and certainly well below the Uplift books, but above The Practice Effect and Heart of the Comet. But that still puts it head and shoulders above most stuff, and far above the "worth reading" threshold.

The first two thirds of the book explores the consequences of dittotech, a technology that allows people to create temporary copies of themselves and then inload the memories that those copies gather. This was by far my favorite element. The first few dozen pages in particular were breathtaking; my mind was racing ahead to various not-immediately-obvious ramifications of this technology (like people using them to play live-action roleplaying games in which you could really fight and kill and die), and as these ideas piled up quickly, the book continually astonished me with even more amazing possibilities that I hadn't thought of.

The last third of the book felt more perfunctory to me. There was the resolution of the various mysteries, some of which I had already solved (I claim no particular genius there: I had the information of all of the main character's dittos to draw on, but he only had some of it) and some of which I had not. There was some action. But mostly, there was a departure from the tone and topic of the earlier parts of the book that I found less welcome.

To a large extent, the first two thirds of the book treat dittotech as a MacGuffin; we are expected to accept it and not dwell too long on whether we find it plausible. The details of how clay is used, or why memory transfers have the limitations they do, are not really important to the thought experiment that asks, "what if this were possible, what would happen?" In a sense, the author has entered into an implicit MacGuffin contract with us: "don't give me too much grief about the plausibility of the fiddly details, because they aren't really crucial to the thought experiment." In the last section, though, this contract is broken. The author goes away from exploring the ramifications of dittotech as presented, by playing around with those very fiddly details we were just supposed to accept earlier.

The result provides a big world-changing resolution that would feel entirely appropriate at the end of a Greg Egan book, but which didn't feel to me like it fit the first part of this book. I just can't help wondering what alternate way the story might have gone if it had remained bound by its original premise.

That said, it was still a very gripping and exciting bit of writing which kept me glued to the pages, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I don't mean to sound anywhere near as critical as I think I do; it's hard to say as much about all that was good without venturing into spoilers, but not as hard to speak about the little bit that wasn't as good.

I'm not even going to comment on the puns...

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

Yeah, the puns were pretty thick on the ground. I don't remember thinking there was much of a shift in tone in Kiln People, but it's been a while since I read it. I do remember loving the combination of science fiction with a good noir plot.