Science Fiction Reviews

Kil'n People

(2002) David Brin, Orbit, 6.99, pbk, pp612. ISBN 1-84149-152-7


Al Morris is a private detective. In common with most people in the future, resource-depleted US, he is also a lot of people for cheap 'cloning', rather personality/sentience imprinting on a cheap clay-type material, to make 'dittos' of one's self is common place. He can therefore be in several places at once, and also imprint onto moulds with special abilities (such as infra red vision) and so forth. The only problem is that the 'clones' or 'dittos' only last a day or so and have to have their memories down-loaded back into the human or they are lost. However there is trouble afoot at one of the multinational companies central to this technology and Al is called in to help...

OK, that is the basis for the plot and all you really need to get going. However if you are familiar with Brin's work let me say straightaway that this is the best thing in hard SF terms he has written since the transgenic Uplift War (1987) or possibly the environmental Earth (1990). Brin for many years has taken hard SF and treated it as fantasy (and why not if it sells to two markets) but Kil'n People is different. It really is hard SF. Brin himself in an afterword acknowledgement page says that "Kil'n People is one of the most challenging works [he's] taken on". I can well believe this for, as those who know me know, one of my potted philosophies of life is that the only place 'success' comes before 'work' in the dictionary. Brin clearly has done the work in the form of research leg work and in contemplation, and if he has not done it himself he has asked around (as exemplified by the acknowledgement page). The science, well of course it is SF, but I recognised a number of references on the bioscience front and can assure potential readers that the man had access to some good guidance.

I should point out that if Kil'n People was 'just' a detective story I would not be so upbeat. It is far more than that! Kil'n People has taken a concept, an SF trope, that of the golem and cybernetics, and reviewed its possible implications. The novel is rich in these. From the immediately obvious (for example what happens if you incompletely imprint or if your imprint starts to have a mind of its own) to less obvious social implications (such as a divorced parent imprinting his/her child and letting the imprinted 'ditto' go out for the day with the other partner, then refusing the child access to the ditto's acquired happy memories of the day purely out of spite). Then there is the use of golem astronauts, soldiers, cops, sex entertainers (both professional and onanistic). Of course in Brin's world robots of the Asimov ilk are nowhere to be found as they are extremely expensive to make run and repair.

Kil'n People is simply brilliant and it is not at all hyperbole to say that it is an SF masterpiece: one of the first of the 21st century. Now recently the Hugo Award seems to have lost its path representing World SF achievement by straying onto World Fantasy Award territory, but if Kil'n People does not get at least nominated for the up-coming 2003 Hugo then you can simply scratch that Award off as a guide to excellence in the genre. Clearly the publishers think it will do well and certainly doesn't need reviews on even long-standing SF sites such as this one since the perishers never included a copy in their seasonal pack to us. They are, of course, right. I am sure Kil'n People will still be in print decades from now.

Jonathan Cowie


Stop Press September 2003: Kil'n People was short-listed for the Hugo.

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