Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Your Own Personal Dittos: Kiln People by David Brin


I met David Brin (the author of Kiln People and many other novels) at a signing about a decade ago. In our small talk (awkward for me; natural for him), I mentioned that I was a philosopher and he recommended Kiln People, which I soon picked up ... and somehow didn't read until now. (If only I had some dittos to get through my to-read pile!)

The idea is really fun and philosophically interesting when it comes to the issue of personal identity (What makes you you? What is a person?). But the plot never really engaged me, and the novel falls into a common SF problem where the societal changes of time and technology are under-explored, which made it hard for me to really buy into the whole concept of dittos.

But what are "dittos," you ask? They're copies of you in disposable bodies. They go out and do things you don't want to do or don't have time to do, and then they return and sync their memories back into yours. Brin has some fun with this concept and largely avoids the problem of who's who with pun-filled chapter headings. Honestly that wasn't as much of a problem as I thought it would be. The problem for me was keeping track of the characters beyond the various iterations of the main character, Albert, and all their various machinations. The plot gets complicated fast, but never really grabbed me. 

Brin is going for a Neo-Noir style, but the central mysteries were a bit convoluted, but in a way I didn't care much about unraveling. Mystery plots are fine, but I need to have some deeper reason to care about solving them. As it was, I almost bailed on the book several times, although it got more interesting later (especially more philosophically interesting as concepts of identity get more deeply explored).

I also feel like Brin didn't really think through the social and philosophical issues as much as he could have. We get detailed descriptions of all the different kinds of dittos (color-coded according to their main uses) and some background of the societal changes, but the early 22nd century (I think?) feels way too much like the early 21st century, just with dittos. One character constantly references Gumby, but I doubt even people born in the 1990's know who Gumby is, much less people born in the 2090's. But that's a surface-level example. Things like gender relations and economics (despite some sort of basic income) have hardly changed.

Philosophically everyone (including maybe Brin) is assuming a memory criterion of identity à la John Locke. That is: what makes you you are your memories. So when your ditto goes out and makes new memories and downloads them back into you, that ditto really is you in some sense. 

At least this seems to be how the novel solves the problem of personal fission and fusion. It does get into what happens if a ditto doesn't come back, and even if a ditto consciously decides to go on without returning to its original source. Dittos have some kind of built-in desire to return along with a vague notion that doing so ensures their survival (according to the memory criterion), but still, I would think a lot more of them would say "fuck this" and never go back than do in the novel. I mean, would you go back?

Or maybe the whole thing is a subtle critique of the memory criterion? Maybe those dittos really are separate people and the whole thing is horrifying? But we don't get much exploration of that, either, aside from some ditto rights groups. But then the dittos only last about a day or maybe two before their disposable bodies literally fall apart. Maybe this is required for the world to make any sense, but it somewhat strained my credibility to believe that people would invest so much time and resources into disposable people just so they don't raise a fuss or have to eat or go to the bathroom. 

Or maybe that is the critique? We here in the 21st century treat an awful lot of people as disposable people (the working poor, homeless people, vast parts of the "developing world," etc.) But again, we don't get much of that, as the overall tone of the novel is that of a fun detective romp.

For all the things the novel didn't do, it still felt too long. Many other reviewers have said it needed an editor, and I agree. It's almost 600 pages, but I feel like a more interesting, less convoluted novel of about 300-400 pages would have been better. There are several subplots I would not have missed at all.

Okay, I'm piling on the criticisms now like I had dittos think of them for me, but I really did find most of it pretty fun and interesting. My favorite was probably the "Frankie" ditto (for "Frankenstein") and then things get really weird and wild toward the end in a way that not only critiques the memory criterion, but maybe almost something like a Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta critique of the very concept of a discrete personal identity... but let's not spoil that.

So overall, this was mostly a fun vacation read for me with a bit of philosophy. Brin maybe could have had more editor dittos working for him, but then again, maybe I needed more reader dittos to understand what he was going for!

See a ditto of this review on Goodreads.

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