Kiln People (2002) by David Brin

KilnPeople1Also known as Kil’n People, which is why I didn’t expect a book about clay people. I thought it was going to be about some imaginary tribal culture. Maybe from space. But, no. It’s about clay people. That you make in kilns. Kiln clones. ALSO KNOWN AS GOLEMS.

In case you’re just joining me in my reading saga, I just read a book with 229 mentions of the word golem. I’m a bit golemed out.

“Golemetry is an interruption,” I read somewhere once.

Private Detective Albert Morris lives in a future world where downloading one’s mind into into temporary clay bodies is a common and daily occurrence. Morris relies heavily on his dittos to carry out his hard and dangerous work while he stays home and chills, waiting for his clones (the lucky ones that survive, that is) to return and upload their memories into his mind so he can solve his cases. One day, however, several of his ditectives become personally involved in various ditplots, and things become mortarly inclone-venient.

And the clay puns abound. (“Peditstrian” is one example of Brin’s word play. Not joking.)

If we look into the pores of this brittle surface, there is an undercurrent of something deeper going on. A criticism of the industrialization of humanity. Disposable culture. Experience without risk. With the convenience of dittos, the world is transformed into something depersonalized and gritty. Bodies of used up dittos litter the streets and overfill the bins. City centers transform to pleasure centers where specialized service golems provide any service imaginable, dangerous or otherwise. Meanwhile, the real people stay at home, underemployed and overeducated and overexperienced, waiting to upload more golemic memories. And what constitutes “real people?”

Tantalizing in that context, but don’t forget this book is about hi-tech clones… made of clay. A premise this absurd that would be more effective if shorter—it was born of a David Brin short story– and even better if modeled after absurd SF of the fifties. A premise about ditto ditectives can’t withstand 600 pages of plot because it’s too flimsy to suspend disbelief for so long. I mean, clay clones? Really?

Kiln People

How I pictured the clay clones of David Brin’s Kiln People. The materials science field in this world needs help.

Or this. Frightening.

In a sense, this novel has an Ancillary Justice feel with its multiple incarnations of one downloaded consciousness, and in some ways it explores this theme more deeply by imbuing each clone with experiences independent of their progenitor Albert. In one case, the download goes awry and a clone is born with an independent personality—termed a “frankie”—who quits his work with Albert to pursue his own agenda. Albert’s a nice guy, so he’s cool about it, but this idea of slavery of the consciousness would be a fascinating subject to explore, and would help develop reader empathy for these weird dittos. But although Brin hints at it, the plot is mostly concerned with crime fiction tropes such as chasing down a clone-voluted corporate clone-spiracy.

I should add that many critics of this novel complain that the rotating first-person perspectives of the clones isn’t differentiated enough, and every clone reads too similarly to be interesting or noteworthy. The audiobook experience improves on this issue with the narrator voicing slight differences for each clone character. (The frankie clone is a bit whiny.)

One thing that Brin does get right, although only at the surface level, is his attention to skin, er, clay color. Each ditto is assigned a color based on their expected duties: green for general errand running, ebony for intellectual tasks, gray for diplomacy, ivory for the sex industry, etc., while the general human population is what is often termed “human brown.” Although Brin doesn’t much pursue this stratification at any emotional level, at least he subverts, rather than reinforces, our own social stereotypes by inventing his own system.


Why the apostrophe now?

But ultimately, 600 pages is too long to entertain such an absurd premise. As the plot attempts to ditour and ditstract, inevitable questions arise in the reader’s mind: How can they be made of clay? Can clay be that mobile? If this particular clay is made of high-tech flexible polymers, why are clones pockmarked after a day of basic activity? And, if clay clones are brittle enough to be covered in pockmarks from daily dings, how can the limbs be flexible enough to run or hold things? Wouldn’t the impact of running shatter their feet?

After about 200 pages, my ditsbelief suspension system wore out.

18 thoughts on “Kiln People (2002) by David Brin

  1. wildbilbo says:

    Interesting review – I liked your idea about the length a novel can maintain an absurd premise. I *just* finished a book (which I will review shortly) called “Motherf*cking Sharks”. The premise is “heavy rains come and once they are gone, magical sharks leap out of the puddles and swim through the air eating everyone”. It’s fantastic – and works because it’s only a Novelette 124 pages.

    600 pages of absurdity would need amazingly strong story AND great writing or it grates.

    So are you deliberately looking for books about golems?


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      So, are you saying if “Mktherfucking Sharks” went any longer, it would have jumped the shark?

      I saw on Goodreads that you were reading that and that title certainly caught my attention. Good to know it’s short and it works.

      No, this is not a deliberate reading theme. I had no idea KILN People was about golems. I honestly just stick to my list and don’t think much about it until I open to the first page. Imagine my surprise when…

      I have a theory though: China Miéville’s wonderful The Scar placed 4th for the Hugo in 2003. (It was a bad year. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Rice and Salt SHOULD HAVE WON and placed last, wth hugos?) Kiln People placed 2nd. I think Miéville saw that and thought, “This is bullshit. The next book I write is gonna be all about stupid golems.” And we got Iron Council. Which placed last in 2005. But that was a better year (Johnathan Strange won, followed by River of Gods…)

      Anyway, that’s my theory. Admiral.Ironbombs thinks the golem refs in Iron Council are really influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. That’s probably more logical than my theory.

      Liked by 1 person

      • wildbilbo says:

        Damn, you stole my Jump the Shark joke. It’s weird but I liked it a lot.

        Having played one or two games of D&D (i.e. continuously from the age of 13 through to 25) – there are a wide variety of golems… I can see someone getting carried away with that notion 🙂


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Nope, that Jump the Shark joke is YOURS. You left the door wide open for me.

          Just one or two games, eh?

          I was always kind of envious of you D&D kids– it looked like fun, but it also seemed like a lot of work.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Rabindranauth says:

    Ditinitely sounds like dit should have lost a couple of hundred pages in editing. And so the golemania continues!


  3. Joseph Nebus says:

    I remember hearing about the book and thinking the premise was neat — well, I like people made of weird stuff (see also Oar in James Alan Gardner’s Technocracy novels; yeah, she’s not a weird material, just a human-shaped transparent bug, but still) — yet somehow something warded me off of the book. I guess the discussions about the book suggested there just wasn’t enough, er, meat on the premise.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      “Human-shaped transparent bug” I’m sold!

      I haven’t seen much about the discussions around that time,– I certainly wasn’t paying attention back then– but I have no idea why it did as well as it did on the award shortlists.


  4. 600 pages?!?!?! Ugh. It hurts me to think about 600 pages of this. That is def 450 too many. At least. But hey, you triumphed. Good job.

    Speaking of China Mieville, in “Kraken” there is a character (born a GOLEM in the underworld, but who frees himself and becomes a union organizer for the animal familiars) who jumps from statue to statue to talk to people as he doesn’t have a body. As many problems as I had with “Kraken,” he was the coolest character in there (The Admiral says he thought so too) AND sounds like Mieville being like, “this Brin shit is stupid, I am going to do this but good.”


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      More like 550-something pages. And thanks for supporting MY theory.

      “born a GOLEM in the underworld, but who frees himself and becomes a union organizer for the animal familiars” This is why I hide my love of SF. Imagine the looks you would get explaining that to a layperson.

      Liked by 1 person

      • HA. Oooh yeah. Looks and then a free ride in a straight jacket.

        Also, I forgot to add in my first comment, I cannot read that fucking title without seeing “Killin’ People.” At least that’s good for a chuckle.


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          When I first saw the title, I saw the UK version, which is “Kil’n People.” I wondered if it was pronounced “Killin.'” Not sure it adds much meaning to the tale, but who knows.


  5. […] this week I was reading another blogger’s book review (CouchToMoon’s review of Kiln People*) and noted the following […]


  6. […] anyone say anything about my horrifically cliptastic art skilz in my Kiln People review? (Nope. Frowny […]


  7. […] Still, Brin is hit-and-miss with me. I thoroughly enjoyed Glory Season (1993) but finishing Kiln People (2002) was a […]


  8. […] count. The external conflict lacks the intensity to hold a casual reader’s interest. Like the last Brin I read, the light fabric of the tale doesn’t match its unwieldy structure. It will feel miresome for […]


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