“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Kil'n People, by David Brin

Review of David Brin’s “future thriller”, Kil’n People.

Summary: provocative and funny; a keeper.

David Brin is probably most well known for his six “Uplift” books, from Sundiver through to Heaven’s Reach. These stories of galaxy-spanning civilisations, spacefaring dolphins and intelligent chimpanzees are classics, and the premise of Uplift to sentience of what then become subservient client races couldn’t be further from that in Kil’n People.

In Kil’n People, the action is set on Earth and there is no interstellar travel to complicate the picture. The technological premise explored is instead the ability to create cheap, disposable clay copies of yourself. They only last a day before they dissolve into slurry, but if you’re a busy guy you can make a copy to clean the toilets and do the gardening, one to do your heavy thinking and another to visit friends. The original organic “you” can spend the day catching up on your sleep, working out to keep your (non-disposable) real body in shape, or just sit around in cafés all day in the company of your fleshy pals, being served by the finest golem baristas and waiters (after all, if you’re a good waiter — or a good almost anything else — you’re good enough to hold down several jobs doing the same thing; no surly or incompetent service staff in this universe, although there are a lot of unemployed people).

Oh, look, there are similarities between the two setups after all. Despite the different routes, the destination is much the same: in Kil’n People, the manufactured “dittos” are so obviously “not real people” that they are treated not as respected avatars of their natural-born originals or as people in their own right, but as stage extras, property or worse. I’ll leave the obvious analogies between both of these fictional contexts and the nastier aspects of the world we live in for the reader.

Brin makes it plain from the first that a golem does have an internal life and a “mind’s I”. Not an identical mind to that of their original, though: if you’ve been made as a “green” for drudge work, your personality is modified in relevant ways; similarly, an “ebony” has characteristics suited for intense mental activity, and so on.

Despite this “editing” part of the premise, I did find that the attitude of the golems themselves to their situation (death with no afterlife at the end of the day unless you do something interesting enough for your original to want to inload your memories) was almost implausibly breezy. Brin has a lot of fun with this, and with the different points of view taken by multiple characters with the same basic personality tuned in different ways… all participating in the same events.

Another part of the humour in the book comes from Brin’s clever bending of the English language to suit the needs of the ditto technology. New words abound, most of them punny rather than serious: “ditnapping”, a character called “Vic Kaolin”, a clay-eating anti-personnel device called a “clayvore”, and so on.

The story itself is an old-fashioned detective yarn that could have been made for Bogart and big hats, with murders, beautiful female clients who are not what they seem and more plot twists than you can count. All of this served tongue-in-cheek and all the more enjoyable for it.

I do have one criticism of this book, centring around the way in which the posited mechanism of impression of the original’s personality into the clay golem blank becomes explicit. If this were “hard” science fiction in the vein of the Uplift books, this would be absolutely required. In Kil’n People, it leads to a rather lengthy and hard to follow metaphysical interlude at the crisis point in the novel. I have to feel that Brin could have got through this part of the book without clarifying the earlier hand-waves regarding the technology, and that the story would have been better for it.

Having said that, I’d still rate this book as a “keeper”. For someone with as little shelf space — and as many books — as I have, this is pretty good going.

The book looked tempting in the shop. I guess I’ll just have to read it now!

— Lindsay Jackson on May 15, 2003

Me too - though I’ll probably skip the metaphysical interlude!

— Mary Young on May 16, 2003