With regards the reviews I write, I feel it is necessary to provide this caveat.
The initial section right up to the button that opens the full synopsis is the teaser where I try to give a look into the book without revealing too much.

The section within the button is a full synopsis. No detail will be hidden at all.

Be warned!
The final section (Food for thought) is a series of thoughts on the book. This is a personal take on the book and does mention important parts of the books. It should be considered as much of a spoiler as the previous section!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Book Review: Kiln People by David Brin - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall. This week's science fiction book under review was written in 2002 and set in a future where mankind is free to do as they please thanks to the "ditto," a disposable body from which memories can be downloaded from.
Today's book is:
Cover art copyright of Jim Burns.

'In a perilous future, disposable duplicate bodies fulfil every citizen's legal and illicit whim. Life as a twenty-four-hour "ditto" is cheap, as Albert Morris knows. A brash investigator with a knack for trouble, he's sent plenty of clay duplicates into deadly peril, then "inloaded" memories from copies that were shot, crushed, drowned... all part of a day's work.

But when Morris tackles a ring of crooks making bootleg copies of a famous actress, he
trips into a secret so explosive it incites open warfare on the streets of dittotown.' - Kiln People, David Brin [2002]

Kiln People is a tale that mimics the old 'Film Noir' crime thrillers of the late 1940s. Film Noir's stereotype is generally associated with an emphasis on cynicism and sexual desire, black and white films that are dark because of their hard-life setting rather than their colours. The same is true with Kiln People. We follow the story of Albert Morris, a private dick* (who even wears a trenchcoat and fedora, a stereotype of the Film Noir private eyes). The story is told from realAlbert and from the ditAlberts' point of view. The ditto-Alberts (ditAlberts) are the characters who evoke the dark edginess of the Noir crime thriller because they are the ones who are expendable, who risk their lives in the search of answers.
*Slang for detective. 

The story is set in a future built upon the labour of a self-aware, sentient underclass, namely golems (or dittos). The term golem comes from Jewish mythology, a creature created from clay. The mythology differs in time, (for example, Adam in the Genesis myth is a golem formed from mud), but it seems likely that David Brin is drawing upon the medieval interpretations of the golem, a creature formed from clay and provided a shem, a sheet of paper with God's name that grants it life. In this future, mankind imprints the Standing Wave of his soul into his clay golem and sets it to tasks. The golems expire after a single day, returning to 'inload' memories to their archetype (their template or creator if you will) before their remains are recycled. As a result, clay-life is cheap as the golems are treated as property rather than people. In this future, man cannot murder a ditto, he can only destroy it (and pay the resulting fines).

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought:

The great thing about Kiln People is that many of the conceptual ideas raised by the book are also compared and contrasted with, examined in subtle ways here and there that make the book's setting both fascinating and identifiable.

At its heart, it is a Noir crime thriller. We have a story filled with vast, over-reaching conspiracies set within a dark and cruel world. A world built on sex and cynicism (classics of the Noir crime genre), a world that is unashamed by its behaviour and seeks more out of life. There are few subtleties to the mimicry of the Noir crime thriller. Detective Albert Morris wears a trenchcoat and fedora, a lone crusader for justice in a world tainted by casual violence. Frankly, it doesn't really get more cliché than that.

Mentioned above, the basis for the dittos that mankind creates at whim is the Jewish 'golem' mythology. The mythology varies, but all agree that a golem is a being made of clay and animated to life. In the Genesis myth (from the bible), Adam is likewise sculpted from clay in his creator's image (though modern translations from the Hebrew use 'dirt'). Hence, dittos are effectively mankind's Adam, images of their creator.

Within the golem mythology though, there are disagreements with the method of animation. Some golems are said to be animated by having emet (אֱמֶת) inscribed on them. Emet is a Hebrew acronym for 'God created to do' and also means truth. But the sense of 'truth' refers to a physical action, that there is truth in doing an action, thereby being a reason for the golem to animate, that it is given purpose by truth. Another way to look at it would be to understand that dittos (and golems) are given a purpose in life, and that purpose is to do. Within the emet concept though, a golem is ended by removing the first letter, by changing אֱמֶת (emet) to מֵת (met), changing the meaning from truth to 'dead.' The letter removed is the Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet and represents God. Therefore, to remove God is to die. How fitting then that all dittos within the story do not exist without their creators. To refuse their creator is to never inload your memories, which is to die without continuity.

The other mythology with golems is the provision of a shem which gives the clay life. Shem translates most commonly to: 'the essential reality of who someone is.' We see this in the way that everyone had a standing wave, a scientifically quantified soul, but within that is an ineffable part of one's identity that continues to feature through all of one's dittos. For example, in Albert Morris' case this is expressed as his stubbornness.

There are however, a few errors through the text. The first starts with a ditto shaped like Horus, mentioned as the Egyptian god of death. Horus is the god of vengeance, sky, protection and war. The god of the afterlife and death is Osiris with Anubis being the protector of the dead.

The second features incorrect statements about China. One of the characters has received gifts from China, specifically from the Emperor (implying that the Republic of China was never founded). To be precise, the character has received a terracotta soldier. David Brin makes a reference to the terracotta soldier in his character's possession having come from China, the country that derived its name from the Ch'in Emperor. This is an incorrect spelling based on an out-of-date romanisation method called 'Wade-Giles' and David Brin really refers to the Qin Emperor (specifically Qin Shi Huang Di [秦始皇帝], whose name translates to: Qin Starts the Dynasties). In addition to the spelling error there is another factual error. China's name derives from Chini (چینی) in Middle Persian and the use of چینی to refer to China predates the Qin Dynasty, referring instead to the Qin State (9th Century BCE - 221 BCE).

Furthermore Sian is the Wade-Giles version of "Xian." The Wade-Giles method of romanisation had been replaced in 1958 with the more efficient and correct Pinyin system. While the Wade-Giles has been in use for over one hundred years, anyone who speaks Chinese today can tell you the subtle sound differences between Pinyin (which attempts to mimic the sounds that are spoken by Chinese) and Wade-Giles (which mimics the sounds that Westerners hear). Obviously, as a result, the Wade-Giles system is considered to be vastly incorrect (it would be impossible to argue that the originators of the language somehow are wrong when they speak compared to those who are translating what they perceive to hear).

Outside of these issues, the book as mentioned above, raises parallels to its own setting quite often, many of which are fascinating insights into the influences that the author drew on to write the story. The most notable is Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a black and white film of 1927. The film is an epic science fiction set in a dystopian future where the wealthy industrialists rule the city of Metropolis and are supported by a lower class of downtrodden workers that dwell underground and must toil constantly to keep the city running. The parallels with dittos are immediately apparent, this idea that though the dittos are sentient they are not treated as equals to mankind, instead used up as mere tools to further the wealthier original's needs. They are a new form of underclass that has emerged in mankind's society. On the one hand, there is a tragedy within this viewpoint, that mankind has so casually turned dittos into robots (here I mean the original meaning of the term, robota*). On the other hand though, dittos have liberated human society. They allow the originals to live lives of luxury compared to our present day existences. It is a society where every human being who can imprint and can obtain jobs for their dittos is otherwise free to do as they please. Clara for example, (in addition to her dittos fighting within the army), is a permanent university student, filling her life with learning different subjects one at a time, but mankind's freedom has come at the cost of their sentient mimics.

The book draws an analogy with the Roman Empire, which was built on the backs of slaves. Though the only real analogy is through the use of the violence that the dittos play out on behalf of their owners whims. In a sense, the setting of Kiln People is a dark setting where violence is sated through sanctioned (or at least, 'accepted') methods, such as the drama and fights that break out in dittotown. In that sense, the use of dittos to fulfil the whims of the owner create an essence of the Roman Empire before its collapse, of a world filled with immorality and violent excess with all of that hidden behind a thin veneer of civilised behaviour that 'real' people engage in.

*The term robot is not actually an English word. It derives from a Czech playwright who coined the word in 1920 after his brother suggested the term robota over labori which defines 'serf labour.' Effectively, when we name a thing 'robot' we really mean to call it a slave, like a serf, it is owned and has few rights to itself. To some extents, dittos are robots, able to have aspects of their sentience limited or even outright blocked, or able to have their sensory perception disabled. They toil for their owners without complaint (with the exception of rare 'Frankensteins')

Ditto technology represents an interesting take on the Frankenstein story. One thing that needs to be clarified first though is the common mistake people make with the original story. The title of that novel is actually: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein was not the monster, he was the doctor who created the monster. The monster has no name throughout the original tale, referred to only by derogative terms such as 'wretch,' 'demon,' and 'fiend.' A faulty ditto is referred to as a Frankenstein, in reference to the monster that Victor Frankenstein created. However, the Frankenstein link at first seems rather separate to the general ditto theme, but we must recall that it is the subtitle to the text that matters. 'The Modern Prometheus.' In Latin versions of the Promethean myth, Prometheus created man using clay and water, and was later punished by Zeus for disobedience (giving the fire Zeus had withheld to man). In much the same way, Frankenstein dittos are dittos that disobey their creators and are punished accordingly (by being fair game to any human or ditto that chooses should the ditto be reported as a Frankenstein).
Though, of course, I cannot help but agree with the cynicism in this book. The idea of using dittos as a means to express violence in order to preserve real lives is quite acceptable, provided one believes that dittos are not equal to human beings (which for example, Tolerance Unlimited doesn't believe). An interesting political aspect within this book is the concept of the Whistleblower Prize, a good take on the benefits of a Capitalist society. The idea being, if something illegal is going on within one's workplace or community, the Whistleblower Prize richly rewards any individual who blows the whistle, giving instant celebrity status to anyone who uncovered illegal acts or corruption which represents an innovative way to manipulate human greed into a positive action.