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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Friday, April 5, 2013

2002 Hugo Award Nominee- 'Kiln People' by David Brin

'Kiln People' has a lot going for it.  David Brin crafts a very original novel here, and adopts just the right tone to pull it off.  The concept of dittos, short term clones that can be created and absorbed by anyone,  is an interesting one, and the way in which Brin implements the concept is just as original.  While reading the novel I gave it a pretty favorable comparison to another Brin novel, 'Earth,' in that both showed the future in a positive light, rare for an SF novel.  Having completed Kiln I can say that the comparison holds true, almost to a fault.

You can't overestimate the importance of writing style and tone in SF, and pretty much any novel.  But, I think it is especially important when an author tackles a subject that's a little off the wall.  In my review for Malzburg's 'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' I point out (correctly I think) that an improper choice of tone is what threw that novel off.  It seems an author either needs to commit fully to an offbeat premise, like Spinrad in 'The Void Captain's Tale', or let the audience in on the joke, winking at them to never take anything too seriously, think Philip K. Dick in... just about everything he wrote.  If an author is going to write something truly bizarre they need to be extra careful to keep that tone precisely where it needs to be, if you break that suspension of disbelief just one time it's gone for good and not coming back.

Brin takes the second avenue in Kiln, writing the the entire novel with a wink and nod, always letting the reader know that they're in on the joke.  There are a few laugh out loud moments in the novel, and even as the novel grows serious and finds itself a theme close to the end, Brin never lets go of the humor that he began with.  That humor can be especially helpful in the opening chapters when the reader is still scrambling to keep track of where all the Albert Morris' are, and which copies POV we are witnessing at a given time.

It can be difficult to keep track of the action in the novel.  The concept of "dittos," while amazingly original, might not lend itself easily to the written word.  There is little to differentiate between the multiple copies of Albert Morris barring the header at the start of each chapter.  This can be especially difficult in the opening chapters before the copies each begin to physically deviate from the original Albert.  I've read a few reviews by people who gave up on the novel for that very reason, while I don't agree that it's irritating enough to put the novel down, it can be off putting for the first hundred pages.

Like one of Brin's previous novels, 'Earth,' Brin explores the idea of a transparent society, and the possible future this might bring about.  It's interesting mostly because Brin imagines a world improved on our own.  It's a rare thing to see in SF of any decade, the near future novel that imagines our world getting better and not being obliterated in a fiery inferno.  While we may not like the future that Brin imagines in either Earth or Kiln, with constant surveillance, security being open sourced, and a complete lack of secrecy, it's obvious that Brin presents a future that is both more likely, and more optimistic than his fellow writers.

It's refreshing to find an SF novelist willing to believe that humanity can handle whatever problems might be on the horizon, and at the risk of comparing this novel too much with 'Earth' I'd like to include his preface from that novel, where Brin acknowledges how rare this might be:

"As writers go, I suppose I'm known as a bit of an optimist, so it seems only natural that this novel projects a future where there's a little more wisdom than folly . . . maybe a bit more hope than despair."

Kiln tackles some of the same issue as 'Earth,' but stops short of making the same wild amount of predictions as that previous novel.  Understandable considering the premise of Kiln.  It is interesting though to be welcomed back into that same optimistic future of 'Earth' considering the novels were written twelve years apart, the problem is that Kiln might follow that novel a little too closely.  The ending of 'Earth,' in which God quite literally shows up and helps our heroes win their battle, is repeated in Kiln.  While I'm more than willing to buy into an author's use of a supreme being (in the case of 'Earth' I should more likely call it "Gaea"), but I do feel like it's a well that an author can only dip in to once.  The second time around it just provokes giggles.

Brin had crafted a meticulous plot, carefully getting his characters into a tense situation, he did such a good job of drawing out the suspense that I almost would have preferred a total let down to the deus ex we receive here.  It feels as if Brin couldn't come up with an ending he felt was "big" enough for the novel, and turned again to the ending of 'Earth,' and had a supreme being show up to help win the day. 

It's difficult to write about the ending of either of these books without making it sound ridiculous, and maybe the two endings are, but they don't read too terribly insane in the context of the novel.  It's not the novelty of the ending I dislike anyway, it's the fact that Brin does it twice when I didn't feel it was necessary in the context of Kiln.  Brin was closing in on an entertaining and satisfying conclusion to Kiln without resorting to a concept he had already exploded in a previous novel.  On second thought, God showing up is a ridiculous way to end a novel, and doing it a second time isn't twice as ridiculous, it's ridiculous squared.

Nevertheless 'Kiln People' is an entertaining read, and Brin is a fantastic writer who can often be spot on with his predictions for the future.  I don't believe that's totally what he was aiming for with Kiln, as we really would be through the looking glass if I found I could transpose my soul onto a piece of clay and bake myself a clone.   But, Kiln is worth the time if only to meet Brin's cautious optimism once again, something often missed in SF.

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