Brin - Book Reviews

***** - Excellent
**** - Good
*** - Okay
** - Bad
* - Terrible
+ - Half-star

Kiln People
David Brin
Fiction, Sci-Fi

DESCRIPTION: Two generations ago, scientists finally cracked the secret of the Standing Wave, the individual resonant frequency that was once quaintly referred to as the "soul." Now, copying one's soul into clay "dittos" is a mundane part of everyday life. Sure, they only last 24 hours, but that's plenty of time to go to work or indulge other interests... and, if you don't like the day they've had, you don't even have to inload their memories. Guilt-free extra lives, fully recyclable, cheap enough for the masses... and, of course, the criminal element.
Albert Morris, a first-rate copier and a talented investigator, has been pursuing the counterfeit-ditto manufacturer Beta for years. Countless clay Morrises have crossed proverbial swords with Beta's forces, many of whom never came home to inload their findings. After striking another blow to the mysterious man's criminal empire, Morris finds himself entangled in a plot that cuts to the very heart of ditto technology and may bring the modern world as a whole to its knees.

REVIEW: This is why I read sci-fi. Brin takes a fascinating idea - the ability to create copies of oneself, self-aware and identical in thoughts and memories yet inherently considered disposable property - and fully explores the technological, legal, social, and moral implications while still delivering a good story. Brin's future is full of both optimism (a cleaner planet and an end to "realwar," as staged battles between ditto-soldiers settle international disputes) and cynicism (massive unemployment, a new breed of discrimination, and skyrocketing interest in violence and other perverse pleasures, made "safe" and socially acceptable so long as only clay bodies are involved), instead of the clear-cut utopia or dystopia some people prefer. A clever sense of humor underlies Albert's narration, and the plot moves along nicely with plenty of action. The tale splits into multiple threads as Morris and his clay dittos head out on their own investigations, each learning pieces of information which contribute to the whole puzzle. I clipped it a point because some elements of the ending came a little out of the blue, and the climax felt drawn out. Otherwise, an enjoyable and thought-provoking tale that read surprisingly fast. If this is typical of Brin's efforts, I'll have to read more of his books.

You might also enjoy:
Eve & Adam (Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, YA Fiction - A teen girl discovers dark secrets at her mother's medical research lab)
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker, Fiction - People from the future create immortal cyborgs from our ancestors to manipulate history for profit)
The Ender series (Orson Scott Card, Fiction - Child prodigies are trained for interstellar warfare, winning humanity a foothold among the stars)
The Lives of Tao (Wesley Chu, Fiction - A nigh-immortal alien takes an underachieving human host, forcing him into a world of secret warfare)
The Coldfire trilogy (C. S. Friedman, Fiction - On a colony world, a mysterious native force physically manifests thoughts and fears)
LUC (Kimball Lee, Fiction - A scientist's cloning project unexpectedly produces a sapient man)
Cinder (Marissa Meyer, YA Fiction - A teen girl cyborg, hated by her stepmother and society, stumbles into a plot that might enslave the prince and destroy her world)
Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson, Fiction - A world of Returned immortals and powerful BioChroma magic stands on the brink of devastating war)
Old Man's War (John Scalzi, Fiction - Retired men and women are recruited to fight humanity's interstellar battles)
Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, Fiction - A man who thought to play God is tormented by his own abominable creation)
The Otherland quartet (Tad Williams, Fiction - A dark danger and darker conspiracy stalk tomorrow's amped-up Internet)

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The Practice Effect
David Brin
Fiction, Sci-Fi

DESCRIPTION: In the 21st century, the bleeding edge of science is embodied in the zievatron, a device that - in theory - could allow instantaneous travel across space from the comfort of a laboratory. The first working model, however, seems to have developed a peculiar glitch: nothing sent through returns anymore. When physicist Dennis Nuel steps through to investigate, he finds himself trapped on an alien world, where technology seems like a haywire mishmash of Neolithic and industrial. As he struggles to figure out what's going on and how to repair the zievatron, he finds himself swept up in a ruthless baron's battle for dominance - and enchanted by a captured princess of a rival tribe.

REVIEW: I've read and enjoyed Brin's work previously, so I figured I might like this older title, even if it clearly had a pulpy theme. The cover promised "rich characterization" and emphasized Brin's credentials as a real live scientist writing real live science fiction. While I can't speak for the theories (at least, theories as of the 1984 publication), I can speak for the rest of the story, which was anything but "rich." Dennis may be a genius, but he's also a world-class (or interworld-class) moron, prone to fits of absolute stupidity whenever the plot demands it. The story tries to brush off this habit as "tunnel vision" induced by his excessive intelligence and "stress," but it conveniently doesn't kick in under far more stressful situations than when it does occur. If this is "rich characterization," I must not understand the term. Everyone else comes straight out of the stock bin: the petty lab rival Brady, the greedy warlord Kremer, the scrawny comic-relief thief Arth, the glamorous (and utterly helpless, not to mention prone to swooning and oddly immune to human failings like stinking of sweat after several days' hard travel away from baths,) Princess Linnora, and so forth. Gender roles, even in Dennis's "future" Earth, come straight out of the Stone Age; the only lady scientist in the zievatron program exists for her fellow scientists to lust over, and seems to enjoy pitting would-be suitors against each other despite risk of compromising the program itself and her fellows - which it does. Indeed, in reading this, I began to suspect that the entire portal-fantasy subgenre of Earth-man-going-to-strange-primitive-worlds specfic was (or is, as some of these still appear) entirely about guys, particularly nerdy guys, getting laid by conveniently defanged and objectified women... a theme very blatant here. (I found it especially hilarious/aggravating when Dennis keeps referring to the natives as simple, unsophisticated "cavemen" even when he - Mr. Evolved Modern Man - can't stop drooling over the pretty girl whom he'd only glimpsed at a distance... and I don't believe it was intended to be a humorous juxtaposition.) The story hits more than its share of subgenre cliches as Dennis is mistaken for a wizard and ordinary Earth ideas fill the natives with superstitious wonder and awe... even to the point of cowering in terror from a wheeled cart. No, it's not the old gunpowder trick that strikes terror into the naive locals, but the wheel. (Well, the wheel and almost everything else the guy does - which goes back to my hypothesis of why this subgenre exist, as the nerd scientist finds himself celebrated as a demigod simply for existing among a populace of morons... possibly how more than one scientist actually views themselves, but I digress.) I honestly started wondering if Brin was writing a parody - and, if so, why I was cringing instead of laughing. Though there were some intriguing uses of the main gimmick of this other world's peculiar physics, by the time it finished - with a lengthy explanation that didn't really explain much - I was just glad it was over. While I'd considered reading other works by Brin, particularly his much-vaunted Uplift series, I'm significantly more gunshy if this is an indication of the writing I'll find there. If I do read more by him, I think I'll stick to later works.

You might also enjoy:
A Hollow World: Down the Rabbit Hole (R. G. Beckwith, Fiction - A young scientist, fresh out of college, joins a government team investigating a mysterious hole in Greenland)
The Clockwork Cathedral (Heather Blackwood, Fiction - A woman from 2015 falls through a time rift into an alternate 1850's New Orleans)
Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold! (Terry Brooks, Fiction - A burnt-out lawyer buys a magical kingdom from a high-end catalog)
A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fiction - A Civil War veteran finds himself transported to the dying, hostile planet Mars)
Dragon Companion (Don Callander, Fiction - A librarian finds himself inexplicably transported to a world of elves and dragons)
The Wiz Biz books (Rich Cook, Fiction - A Silicon Valley programmer, pulled into a magical world, discovers that spells and computer code aren't that different)
The Dragon and the George (George R. Dickson, Fiction - Seeking his missing wife, a man finds himself in a medieval world, trapped in a dragon's body)
Pyramid Scheme (Eric Flint and David Freer, Fiction - An alien probe transports modern Americans to a world of classical myths and gods)
Cat-A-Lyst (Alan Dean Foster, Fiction - A B-grade actor on vacation in South America discovers a portal to modern-day Incas seeking revenge for their lost empire)
The Tower (J. S. Frankel, YA Fiction - A dying boy stumbles into an alternate Earth, where comic book heroes are real)
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay, YA Fiction - A sickly boy accidentally falls into a world where magic is real and humans are myths)
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner, Fiction - A World War II vet finds himself in a parallel world of magic, fighting memories of an alternate, evil self)
Pendragon: The Merchant of Death (D. J. MacHale, YA Fiction - An average boy finds himself in another world, helping primitive people fight an evil power)
The Magic 2.0 series (Scott Meyer, Fiction - After meddling with the data file controlling reality, a modern hacker flees to medieval England to play wizard)
The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen, YA Fiction - A beam of light transports a boy to a hostile alien wilderness)
Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow (James Rollins, YA Fiction - Modern kids find themselves in a world of dinosaurs, lost civilizations, and magic)
Island in the Sea of Time (S. M. Stirling, Fiction - A strange phenomenon sends 1998 Nantucket Island and a Coast Guard vessel back to the Bronze Age)
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams, Fiction - A man is taken to the faerie world, where war is imminent)

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