The Incrementalists

by Steven Brust & Skyler White

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: September 2013
ISBN: 0-7653-3422-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 304

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The Incrementalists are a secret society that has been in continuous existence for forty thousand years. The members are immortal... sort of (more on that in a moment). They are extremely good at determining what signals, triggers, and actions have the most impact on people, and adept at using those triggers to influence people's behavior. And they're making the world better. Not in any huge, noticeable way, just a little bit, here and there. Incrementally.

Brust and White completely had me with this concept. There are several SF novels about immortals, but (apart from the vampire subgenre) they mostly stay underground and find ways to survive without trying to change the surrounding human society. I love the idea of small, incremental changes, and I was looking forward to reading a book about how that would work. How do they choose what to do? How do they find the right place to push? What long-term goals would such an organization pursue, and what governance structure would they use?

I'm still wondering about most of those things, sadly, since that isn't what this novel is about at all.

I should be fair: a few of those questions hover in the background. There are some political arguments (that parallel arguments on Brust's blog), and a tiny bit about governance. But mostly this is a sort of romance, a fight over identity, and an extensive exploration of the mental "garden" that the Incrementalists use and build to hold their memories and share information with each other.

The story revolves around two Incrementalists: Phil, who is one of the leaders and has one of the longest continuous identities of any of the group, and Renee, a new recruit by Phil who picks up the memories and capabilities (sort of) of the recently-deceased Incrementalist Celeste. Phil is the long-term insider, although a fairly laid-back one. Renee is the outsider, the one to which the story is happening at the beginning, who is taught how the Incrementalists' system works. The Incrementalists is told in alternating first-person viewpoint sections by Phil and Renee (making me wonder if the characters were each written by one of the authors).

Once I got past my disappointment over this book not being quite what I wanted, the identity puzzles that Brust and White play with here caught my attention. The underlying "magic" of the Incrementalists is based on the "memory palace" concept of storing memories via visualizations, but takes it into something akin to personal alternate worlds. Their immortality isn't through physical immortality, but rather the ability to store their memories and personality in their garden, which is their term for the memory palace, and then have it imposed on someone else: a combination of reincarnation, mental takeover, and mental merging. This makes for complex interpersonal relationships and complex interactions between memory, belief, and identity, not to mention some major ethical issues, which come to a head in Phil and Renee's relationship and Celeste's lingering meddling.

I think Brust and White are digging into some interesting questions of character here. There's a lot of emphasis in The Incrementalists on the ease with which people can be manipulated, and the Incrementalists themselves are far from immune. Choice and personal definition are both questionable concepts given how much influence other people have, how many vulnerabilities everyone carries with them, and how much one's opinions are governed by one's life history. That makes identity complex, and raises the question of whether one can truly define oneself.

But, while all these ideas are raised, I think The Incrementalists dances around them more than engages them directly. It's similar to the background hook: yes, these people are slowly improving the world, and we see a little bit of that (and a little bit of them manipulating people for their own convenience), but the story doesn't fully engage with the idea. There's a romance, a few arguments, some tension, some world-building, but I don't feel like this book ever fully committed to any of them. One of the occasional failure modes of Brust for me is insufficient explanation and insufficient clarity, and I hit that here.

My final impression of The Incrementalists is interesting, enjoyable, but vaguely disappointing. It's still a good story with some interesting characters and nice use of the memory palace concept, and I liked Renee throughout (although I think the development of the love story is disturbingly easy and a little weird). But I can't strongly recommend it, and I'm not sure if it's worth seeking out.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-12-28

Last modified and spun 2015-10-26