Brin: Kiln people (2002)

David Brin’s Kiln people is the first book I read based on a LibraryThing member’s recommendation. Several people said I should read it, because based on my extensive review in LT on the original golem story and my interest in science-fiction it was a natural candidate to add o my reading list. I admit I was a bit hesitant, because the only book I read in the past from Brin (Sundiver) I didn’t like. I found that overcomplicated writing, technology for technology sake, without a grander theme or lesson developed. But because of my dual interest in Jewish mysticism and scifi I could not miss out on this book.

The basic concept is fascinating: in the not too distant future a new technology allows people to create limited clones of themselves. These copies are made of clay, similarly to the original golem. Unlike the original though these can be imprinted with a custome combination of one’s mind, skill and memory. I have to refrain using the word “soul” for two reasons: it is not clearly defined in the first part of the book and in the later part it gets it own meaning, which does not entirely coincide the usual understanding.

Another major difference between the golem of the past and the golem of the future is that the latter (usually) expires within a day. People can opt to upload the golem’s memories and experiences to their own body, thus allowing having more experiences in a single lifetime and some of these are from places and conditions that the human body would not survive.

I was surprised to see to the extent the author thought through the social implication of a world, where every single human can have several copies of her or himself running around. The social changes were convincing enough for me. If the measure of good science fiction is that its universe is coherent, including the newly invented laws and newly implemented ideas, than this book passes my muster. Its outlook is unexpectedly positive with contained wars (9-5, in predetermined areas only), omnipresent free time, and access to the technology for everyone. But the utopia is balanced with free-ranging capitalism and all its problems.

I was less impressed by how the ethical, psychological and philosophical implications of this brave new world were covered in the book. The basic idea was so terrific that I think it would have deserved a more thorough explication in these areas. How does it change the human psyche, what kind of new problems might arise, what it means being human in this new world, what the definition of life is. All these areas were touched upon the book, but for my taste not dealt with satisfactorily.

As murder mystery go this was well-written. It had plenty of twists; the readers’ idea of whodunit shifted often enough to make it a page-turner. It was an exciting noel, with novel ideas, although I found none of the characters likeable enough to really care. Also, there was not much change in them. They were introduced in a certain way and by the end of the book they have not learned anything, had no real reason to change. In short it was not about character development, but about storytelling. The story was told fine though.

There were plenty of direct references to the original golem story. There the rabbi who created the clay-man who could move, but had no soul or words was called Maharal, here the scientist who invented the clay-cloning technology was called Maharal. The duplicating machine in the novel is called tetragramatron, which is a technical term for the sacred; four letter word known as G-d’s name. Obviously the idea, that limited, but functioning copies of humans can be made from clay is the basic connecting element.

There are significant differences though. The word “emet” (truth in Hebrew) was important in the original story as writing this world on the golem’s forehead made it alive. The word shows up in the novel as well, but only three times (one of those being the subtitle of chapter 57) and not fully integrated into the story line. In the old Prague version of the story the Jewish community and the Maharal’s daughter needed to be saved from evil outsiders, here the community and his daughter needed to be saved from him. There the reason for the existence of the single golem was protection. Here the reason for the millions of golems was money and convenience.

I liked more elements of the book than not. The repurposing of the golem concept, the connection to the original story, the frantic murder-mystery were all to my liking. However the lack of deeper investigation of the new ethical landscape, the lack of people I could care for, the lack of learnable lessons made the book far from perfect. Just like golems are far from perfect of humans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *