David Brin – Kil’n People

Argh–this book had the potential to be really great, but it falls apart about two-thirds of the way through. It starts out as a fast-paced science-fiction detective story. We’re not quite a century into the future, and the technology of has enabled people to make temporary copies of themselves. These copies are called golems, or dittos. They’re made of specially engineered, recyclable clay, and they only last a day. At the end of a day, they have to inload their memories into their original, or they will run out of stored energy and die. But they are true copies, with all the intellect and emotions of the real people they are copies of.

Albert Morris is a “ditective”, a detective specialising in ditto copyright violations and other property crimes. Dittos are considered as property. They are expendable, and have virtually no rights. The story starts by following a green copy of Morris (all dittos are colour-coded) as it tries to escape from a band of thugs, so that it can return to the real Morris, and inload a set of memories that are crucial to the case he is working on. Brin proceeds to use the structure and voice of a detective novel to elaborate on the society that this ditto technology has created, on the benefits, problems, and practicallities inherent in having copies of yourself running around, and on the philosophical consequences of self-multiplication. It’s a beautiful blend of SF and crime fiction, and Brin’s light narrative touch makes it a sheer joy to read.

The problem comes when Brin deviates from the detective thread, and turns the novel into “pure” science fiction. SF relishes taking a world in flux, or a society on the brink of enormous change, and cutting to the heart of the issue. It finds the people directly involved with the technology/conflict/disaster, and puts them under a microscope in order to tell the larger story through these characters. This means that ultimately the story is not about the characters themselves: they are secondary to the “Big Idea” the author wants to write about.

This is where Kil’n People goes wrong. It starts off being about the characters, and then switches to being about the Idea. The Idea happens to be really good and interesting, but it’s the characters that drew me into the book, and I was disappointed when it wandered off into metaphysics rather than staying with the murder mystery. The pace, and the whole feel of the book changed, and not for the better. Had Brin stayed with the mystery, and resolved it without trying to explain the whole nature of his fictional universe, it would probably have been the best SF detective story I had ever read. He could have carried it on as a series, and he would have had me hooked for life. But he didn’t, and so it has to go down as a just another good SF story, full of ideas, with interesting characters and a satisfying plot. Good, but not great. Damn.