RARA-AVIS: Two recent hardboiled SF novels

From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 05 Jan 2004

I read both of these in the fall last year:

  David Brin, KILN PEOPLE (or KIL'N PEOPLE) (2003)
  Richard K. Morgan, ALTERERED CARBON (2002)

Well, actually, I ended up skimming Brin's book and didn't bother finishing Morgan's. ALTERED CARBON is (or starts as) a pretty straightforward Chandler pastiche set a few hundred years in the future. PI is hired to investigate something, cue the grim cityscape and femme fatale, etc. Some people really like this book, but I dropped it after 80 pages or so. It seemed like Morgan only knew the surface details of hardboiled mysteries, and couldn't go beyond pastiche to something fresh and real. I think that could be a common problem for SF writers if they're not well read in the genre, as it would be the other way when mystery writers decide to stretch.

Brin's book is much better, but it's about 100 pages too long, and I skimmed much of the last third. It's set in a future where artificial people (golems) can be made of a special clay and have a soul imprinted on them so they are, to some extent, a copy of the original person. They only last for a day or two, though, then they die. Their memories of that day can be loaded back into the original person.

All this lets a private investigator be a one-man detective agency. He himself can do the hard stuff, and he can make copies of varying quality and mental acuteness to do boring work or the very dangerous stuff. At night they all come home and he copies their memories, and has another golem write up the bills.

The detective protagonist gets mixed up in trouble involving the people behind the golem-making technology, and if you know your Jewish folk tales, you'll either really enjoy, or quickly tire of, all the names drawn from the old stories. The narrative splits between the real person and his golems, and it's very well handled. It's a really good example of how a detective might work in the future--one where there's no privacy, either
(something Brin has written essays about).

The private eye is a hardboiled type and that's done well. I really liked the book at the start (the mind-copying gave me some weird dreams) but it drags on too long and I think it needed a fair bit of trimming. You might not think so, and it's certainly worth a look for this month.


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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