Hal Finney David Brin’s novel Kiln People touches on a number of popular themes relating to possible future forms of intelligence. What does it mean to be human? What kinds of beings deserve human rights? Is a copy of a person’s intelligence “the same person”?…
Hal Finney, April 27, 2002
David Brin's novel Kiln People touches on a number of popular themes relating to possible future forms of intelligence. What does it mean to be human? What kinds of beings deserve human rights? Is a copy of a person's intelligence "the same person"?
Kiln People presents a near-future world which has been revolutionized by an incredible discovery. Technology to make high-quality human-like clay automotons has been married with the discovery that consciousness manifests as a "standing wave" which can be copied and imprinted. The result is that people can create "golems", "dittos", copies of their own minds imprinted onto clay beings. When the imprinting is done, the golem "wakes up" as a copy of the individual, mentally indistinguishable from the original.
The golems only last for about a day and then deteriorate into a recyclable slurry. If they make it back home during that time, their memories and experiences can be "inloaded", copied back to the human mind from which they were imprinted. If not, all their experiences are lost and they basically just die.
There are different kinds of golem bodies, color-coded to represent different attributes. The grays are general-purpose and seem to most closely resemble human beings in their capabilities. Black golems actually have greater abilities to focus their thoughts and concentrate. Greens and reds are mentally simpler, less imaginitive, and are designed for menial labor.
Within this background Brin creates a detective story and murder mystery. Albert Morris has been hired to track down the murder of one of the top officials at Universal Kilns, the company which monopolizes golem manufacture. In the process of his investigation he uncovers secret new technology which could revolutionize the world even beyond the changes which have already taken place.
My main interest in the novel was not so much the story as the society. What would happen in a world in which conscious intelligence could be replicated at will? How do people treat the golems? While I don't expect this particular technology to be created, we do expect to see many variations on intelligent beings over the course of this century. Can they expect to be treated as well as humans?
Unfortunately, in Brin's world, the answer is no. I was shocked and disgusted to see that he presents the golems as having no human rights whatsoever. They are property, nothing more. They have to step to the back of the bus, get out of the way of the white, excuse me, human massas, put up with whatever humans want to do to them. This shocking recreation of the worst abuses of the slavery era is presented without much explanation by Brin, or much sensitivity to the horrific history he is echoing.
The reasoning he offers is that, first, people don't mind being treated like this when they are clay because they know that this means that when they are human, they get to enjoy the superior state. And second, the problem with giving full human rights to golems is that they would have to be able to vote, and rich people could make multiple golems so that one man, one vote would no longer be meaningful.
I don't accept the first reason, in fact it is downright immoral to justify inflicting pain and hardship on others just because some people might play either the top or bottom role from time to time. Why would it be so impossible simply to treat everyone with respect? I agree that voting would be a problem but it doesn't follow that golems should have no rights at all. Even if they don't vote they should still be recognized as being human.
Another aspect of the society that I found unbelievable and disturbing was that many people care little about their own death when they are golems. In fact, most factory workers create a golem in the morning, send it in to work, and then the golem dies at the end of the day rather than coming home. The idea is that factory work is so boring there's not much point in returning home to inload a day of doing the same thing over and over again thousands of times.
So these people are going to work, doing boring, repetitive work all day, and knowing that their reward is that they will die when the day is over. And they don't mind. Brin hints that this fatalism is perhaps built into the golem mind, but that just transfers the moral responsibility to the guy who makes the copy. He creates a new conscious being which has a built in desire to work for the human's benefit and then commit suicide. Very disturbing.
I had other problems with the story as well. I never really bought the technology. The physiology of the golems isn't discussed much, but the implication is that it is pretty simple, and I don't see how you could make an effective human body without complexity. They don't have a circulatory system, for example, but they need to breathe oxygen. How would that work, how would the oxygen get to the tissues? And imprinting a brain wave is even less believable. We know that the brain has dozens of different specialized sub-regions with specific functional adaptations. The idea that you could just copy a wave into a piece of clay and bring it to intelligent life is absurd. Brin has a reputation as a hard science fiction writer but the golems never seemed like more than fantasy.
I also thought the writing suffered. In my opinion Brin's last few books have been deteriorating. His writing is becoming over-wrought, over- dramatized. He works too hard to try to milk drama from each scene. Italics appear everywhere so that we see how much *meaning* people are putting into their words.
While the story moves along with
plenty of action, related by Albert and his various dittos, I never found myself
that involved. In fact I put the book down midway through out of boredom, and
had to force myself to finish
it a couple of weeks later. Albert himself remains something of a cipher despite being the narrator. He is relatively passive through much of the story, a pawn being manipulated by larger forces. He does show some heroism but we don't particularly see why, other than sheer stubbornness.
Overall I was quite disappointed with this novel. The basic idea was unbelievaable to me, and even suspending that, the social changes were abhorrent. I would like to believe that society would respond very differently to such a technology. The story drags along and feels padded, and the "mind-blowing" ending didn't seem all that original. The writing was overdone and I think the book could have used much tighter editing.
Still it is one of the few novels which delves deeply into what a world would be like where consciousness could be copied cheaply, and people interested in that question may find the book worthwhile even if the answers presented aren't very believable.