Hang around any large gathering of Science Fiction aficionados for long enough and sooner or later someone will pipe-up and decry the current state of the genre, affirming with absolute conviction that ‘things were better in the old days’.
I’ve never really taken much notice of these people who choose to eternally wrap themselves in a safety-blanket of nostalgia, but after reading David Brin’s ‘Kiln People’ I am giving serious thought to changing my mind.
I shall not beat about the bush here: this book has all the interesting qualities of a platitudinous conversation with a drunken aunt on Christmas Day. To list all of its manifold flaws would probably chew up this site’s entire bandwidth allocation for a month, so I shall concentrate merely upon the most prominent howlers:
a) Taking into account the central themes of the book, I am completely perplexed as to how David Brin came to the conclusion that there is a whopping 600-page (UK edition) story to tell here. Perhaps his publisher pays by the word, in which case I can only congratulate the author on his ability to negotiate a writing deal that would make Gordon Gecko blush. Featuring only three (emotionally anorexic) characters of any real note, and with an environment that you could probably fit inside a reasonable sized airport departure lounge (and be left with room to spare), I really see no need for this story to exceed 200 pages. If the author had set such a limit ‘Kiln People’ might well have turned out to be an interesting and thought-provoking read. As things stand, what interesting plot there is to be found here is mired in padding, waffle and oily flab: if this book were to take a cholesterol test, they’d be calling in the cardio-resuscitation team and charging up the paddles with apprehension.
b) A future society where animate golems or ‘dittos’ function as remote sensorial proxies for their hedonistic human masters is an interesting concept, but even the most unquestioning of SF fans must agree that it is also utterly ludicrous. The thought of thousands of these creatures shambling around town, desperately trying to reach the masters so that they can achieve ‘upload’, whilst sloughing off huge chunks of flesh in the street is just plain silly.
c) This book is bewilderingly schizophrenic, lurching through multiple genres like some punch-drunk boxer who has staggered out of his corner for one fight too many. The author’s decision to turn the story into quasi-SF/noir is a particularly bad move as it appears as if he has absolutely no comprehension of what differentiates good noir from bad noir. This tale being a perfect example of the latter.
d) According to one back page review (again – UK edition) ‘the twists just keep coming’, which is certainly true, and herein lies another problem: the effectiveness of a ‘twist’ is inversely proportional to the number of times you attempt to deliver it. Throw in two or three twists and you shouldn’t have a problem, but attempt any more and you run the risk of reducing your plot to farcical levels. In ‘Kiln People’, David Brin pulls the rug from out under the reader’s feet seemingly every third chapter, and by the end I was half expecting Patrick Duffy to step out of the shower and tell me that it was all a dream. Oh but if I could be so lucky.
e) From about chapter 60 onwards this book becomes practically unreadable. Line after line of self-indulgent, pretentious diction such as ‘It is the answer to the Riddle of Pain’ or ‘now back to the ortho-moment’ spew forth at the reader like ectoplasm from the revolving head of a demonically possessed Regan MacNeil. Clearly Brin has some pressing piece of quasi-religious insight that he wishes to share with his readers, but I am in a state of absolute mystification trying to explain what it is.
f) Sitting through 600 plus pages of Albert Morris and his many dittos (who all act in precisely the same annoying jocular manner, despite major design differences which would no doubt dramatically affect each ditto’s outlook and personality) is somewhat akin to being stuck in a hellish time-loop, endlessly recycling the first day back at school after the summer holidays. I can’t decide exactly when I began to loathe his painful wisecracks and all round thickheadishness but I’m pretty sure that I was a long way toward formulating the opinion somewhere within the first chapter.
Now, if it appears as if I am in a state of foam-mouthed apoplexy here then let me take this opportunity to confirm your suspicions. This book is a clunker of earth-shattering proportions, and I am struggling in vain to recall reading anything this bad in the last five years. The sad thing is that I really wanted to like this novel. I respect David Brin for his sterling work in the highly entertaining ‘Uplift series’, but sadly ‘Kiln People’ must rank as his most forgettable creation yet. In 600 pages I sifted out little more than a couple of chapters’ worth of novel imagery, and the development work on a coherent plot and characterisation is pretty much non-existent.
One to be avoided and I sincerely hope that Brin doesn’t make a habit out of this worthless nonsense in the future.