Ditto

3 Aug 2004 11:32 pm
mtvessel: (Default)
07 Apr 2004
Kil'n People - David Brin - Orbit 2002
* * *
A couple of notes from my "ideas to turn into stories" file:
Self Love
Dec 1993: Suppose producing an identical version of yourself became simple and straightforward. Consequences? People would end up falling in love with their clones - logical outcome of drive towards individualism and Hollywood version of romance - finding your soul mate...
18/2/00: To prevent overpopulation, the clones would have an "expiry date" built into their DNA. How could such a horrendous system come about? Intellectual property laws gone mad?
I never developed these ideas, largely because I couldn't figure out how to make the cloning technology work (if human personality and memory is encoded in the interconnections of the billions of neurones in the human brain, how do you read them all at the same time?). Still, I was less than pleased to read the blurb of this book and realise that David Brin had had the same idea. I bought it in the hope that he had left some consequences of his technology unthought through, leaving space for my putative story. Irritatingly, he hasn't.

There are a few differences from the conventional cloning set-up that I had in mind - Brin calls his clones "Dittos" (I wish I'd thought of that) and has them made from clay (with added nanotechnology) rather than conventional biological material, plugging in to all those handy golem myths. The built in expiry date (dittos only last about a day) is a consequence of the dittoing process rather than a deliberate design decision. The cruelty of the short lifespan is mitigated by the fact that dittos can "upload" their memories back to their real progenitors just before expiration. Dittos also come in a variety of qualities indicated by their colour, ranging from cheap greens to expensive ebonies.

The story is told by detective Al Morris and three dittos that he makes on a single day to investigate a number of different cases which turn out, unsurprisingly, to be linked. This is a neat way of telling a story from four different viewpoints but with the same authorial voice, which gets round the usual problems with multiple view point stories of a) the viewpoint characters all wanting to go off and do different things rather than telling the story the author had in mind, and b) the reader identifying with some of the characters and being bored by the rest. In the first half of the book, the investigations of the four Als all come to focus on strange goings on amongst the owners of Universal Kil'ns (the company responsible for the dittoing technology and an unsubtle satire of Microsoft), one of whom has just been murdered (though his dittos linger on). There is much world building here which slows the action down somewhat, but it's nice to see Brin having fun working out the drastic ramifications of his new technology on society. (The sub-title, "a future thriller", is a complete misnomer, by the way - this is a science fiction novel of ideas, not a Tom Clancy-style techno-adventure tale).

Sadly the second half gets heavily philosophical, bringing the world-building and the plot almost to a standstill. This is a result of Brin's ingenious solution to my problem of how you could actually make a duplicate of an adult human. Based on Roger Penrose's idea (in "the Emperor's New Mind") that understanding of consciousness will turn out to depend on quantum mechanics that we haven't discovered yet, he posits a quantum mechanical "standing soul wave" which can be read and used to imprint the nano-activated clay. "Soul" in this case clearly involves memory, getting round all that awkward evidence that it is encoded in neural connections (see review of the "The Making of Memory" previously). There is an obvious ramification of this idea - if quantum mechanics really is at the heart of human consciousness, then non-human quantum mechanical systems should also be able to show signs of consciousness-like properties - and this is explored, adding a level of mysticism which in my view weakens the book (Brin manages to avoid proposing this as a "scientific" explanation for God, but only just). Even more depressingly, the bad guy introduces and discusses these ideas in a ridiculous James Bond-style set-up with an Al Morris ditto imprisoned in a doomsday machine of supposedly terrifying power. Presumably this was intended as a send-up, but it doesn't work. Sorry Dr Brin, but having the ditto comment on how cliched the situation is doesn't stop it being a cliche, nor make it interesting.

There are some other annoyances. Brin's whimsical sense of humour also appears in the jokey subheadings to each chapter and the poor and ineffective pun in the title (which American readers were, apparently, spared - why inflict it on us? And why use a company name that is frequently shortened to "UK", causing a whole raft of distracting associations for British readers?). The only interesting female character, Al's soldier girlfriend Clara, is kept off-stage almost entirely, and the four male voices through which the story is told make this a very blokey book. Still, I enjoyed it.

Oh yes, and Brin does mention my first idea in passing, but as something faintly sordid that only lonely geeks might get up to. Which to be fair is probably true - dittos only last a day, after all, which is hardly time to develop a meaningful relationship. But if the ditto uploaded their memories at the end of each day, which were therefore available to the subsequent clone... Hmmm. Maybe I will write that story after all.

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