The Deus Ex Machina. Cheapest gag in the book. Bane of first year writing tutor. Great big fat neon glowing tattoo on the forehead of the beginner writer screaming “amateur, amateur” for all to see. But. What if? What if the God in the Machine was really a God? And what if the god in the machine that was really a God was really a human? And what if…or perhaps I should just leave it there.
It’s just one of the games David Brin plays with his readers in this book. He endlessly flirts with ideas and narrative devices that would elicit a groan from hidebound writing tutors, yet just as endlessly presents them with such verve and ingenuity that the reader can’t help but be swept along by the sheer force of inventiveness he exhibits. The central conceit of the novel, that humans can imprint their consciousness upon clay ‘dittos’ who then perform tasks for their human original, allows him to use a number of stylistic tricks, and Brin makes full use of his extensive repertoire. Multiple points of view, differing tenses and time frames, a subtle distortion of narrative voice, all are employed to keep the complex and convoluted plot bubbling along at breakneck speed.
And it really is very easy to let yourself be swept up by the constant switching of viewpoint. Brin’s use of his central narrator and three ‘ditto’ copies, each with a subtly different take on their circumstances and at times wildly disparate agenda, allows him to circumvent the greatest problem writers face when using a first person point of view, namely that the action can only follow the ‘eyes’ of the narrator. In this case Brin’s characters can quite literally be everywhere at once, and as human converses with human, and ditto converses with ditto with human with not-sure-one-way-or-the-other, the complexity of the social interactions become as hypnotic and fascinating as the central plot, namely a murder mystery that may not be a murder, unless killing a ditto can be counted murder assuming of course it was a ditto and not a human and…well, you see where a simple reviewer could get confused….
So where does the God come in? Well, you know I don’t give away stories in this column. Suffice to say that in the best murder mystery tradition the death of the stooge is only the tip of the ice pick. The escalating plot takes in questions of identity, humanity, godhead, and the point at which they are defined, and coincide. Dittos are disposable, but is a creature with the full measure of human thoughts and emotions truly just an appliance, even if it is a construct with a planned obsolescence? And can such a tool contain the spark of a higher being within? The novel builds gradually and irrevocably toward an answer.
It is when the novel makes the transition from action-based mystery to literary meditation on spirituality that Brin’s prose starts to struggle. The change of tack is quite sudden, and involves a steep conceptual ‘climb’, and the mammoth intertwining of story threads creaks at times under the strain. But Brin is a writer of supreme confidence and ambitious grasp, and despite an occasional “As You Know”-ism, Kiln People remains at all times an immensely readable and enjoyable novel filled with rounded characters, a subversive thread of humour, and enough conceptual range to leave the reader with an internal conversation long after the task of reading has finished.
NEXT MONTH: Mwoooohahahaha, three continents of horror ensconced between the pages of “Gathering The Bones”. Lee dresses up as the beefiest vampire since Angel and says “Knackers to that. I DO drink vine….”