Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #102: The Incrementalists by Steven Brust & Skyler White

There is a secret society that controls the world. You know this story: you're immediately thinking of the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, grey aliens, the Masons, or whatever that homeless guy on the corner is screaming about this week. You expect shadowy cabals, secret meetings in shiny skyscrapers or mysterious underground headquarters, a large man in shadows stroking a Persian cat, deathrays and suppressed technology, and the one resourceful young man who discovers it all and saves the world.

But this is not that story.

This secret society is incredibly ancient: as old as modern humanity, tens of thousands of years. It's larger and more egalitarian than most: two hundred minds and memories, continuing through the deaths of numerous hosts over the millennia, changing and submerging in new personalities but with an essential continuity of experience and knowledge. And it doesn't actually rule anything: it nudges, and adjusts, and pushes, as its members argue among themselves about what to do and how to do it. They're the BASF of the conspiracy world: they don't make the world; they make it better. Or so they claim.

They are The Incrementalists, and Steven Brust and Skyler White are telling one small story about them in this recent novel, alternating viewpoints between one of the oldest current personalities, Phil, and the newest recruit, Ren. One might assume that Brust wrote the male viewpoint and White the female, but there's nothing in the book or publicity materials to say so.

It all relies on one unexamined fantasy element -- that each of these Incrementalists has an indestructible, eternal core of memory, a "stub," that always survives physical death and can be implanted in a new host. (So, perhaps, the Incrementalists are the only humans who have souls. Or, equally likely, the only ones with souls that will never move on to a better place.) They also have a shared Memory Palace, a landscape where each Incrementalist has a home and Garden containing the memories they share with each other. Brust and White never actually confront the issue that the Incrementalists would have too much memory to fit into a human skull, but the Gardens are there as the buried explanation: the unneeded memories are stuck there, to be re-experienced when necessary.

Incrementalists die, as all humans die. But, after that death, their co-conspirators search for a replacement, recruit that new member, and "spike" the "stub" into the new host. Sometimes the old personality takes over, and it's the same person in a new body. But sometimes not. The Incrementalists have a long history, including periods of outright warfare, and some of those wars were ended by letting the warring personalities stay dead long enough that they would have no chance to control their new hosts. There's no way to tell which mind will prevail, and the other one will still be part of the mix, somehow -- though none of the Incrementalists ever as much as mention the thousands of other minds they've subsumed, so presumably once a mind is buried, it stays buried forever.

Phil is looking for a replacement for Celeste, who was his lover. Both of them were/are also part of the Salt, the closest thing the Incrementalists have to a government: the five oldest personalities, considered to be in charge but not having any clear power that Brust and White ever define. Ren jumps at the opportunity to be part of this vague conspiracy, even at the risk of ceasing to exist as a personality, because she's sure she knows how to change the world.

(If you have a jaundiced view, it's pretty clear than the Incrementalists choose for self-important busybodies who know what's best for everyone. Even the nicest world-controlling secret society is pretty unpleasant when you dig down far enough.)

The bulk of The Incrementalists is about the aftermath of Ren's recruitment: Celeste's personality doesn't take over, as expected, and things get unexpected as they learn that Celeste personally picked Ren (a huge no-no) and that Celeste's personality may be active in the Garden or somewhere else, which shouldn't be possible. So the rest of the Salt quickly arrives, and The Incrementalists turns into something like a murder mystery: Celeste committed suicide, and they're working out why and what she left behind.

It's a very small, circumscribed story to tell about the society that rules the world: the action of The Incrementalists never leaves Las Vegas, and takes place mostly in a few anonymous hotel rooms and Phil's nondescript house on the outskirts. Again, this is a quiet, sedate conspiracy, and their story is equally quiet and sedate. It's probably too sedate for most readers attracted by the concept: this isn't even a story of the Incrementalists using their ability to move the world slightly to make things better, it's about them running around their personal memory palace to do some housekeeping.

As usual with Brust -- I haven't read White before, but the whole novel is enough of a piece that I can't discern who wrote what -- the dialogue is lively and engaging. And that's good, because this is a novel about people talking -- sitting and standing in those rooms, explaining vaguely how their powers work and strategizing about Celeste's remnant.

But, in the end, it's faintly disappointing: a conspiracy novel in which the conspiracy doesn't do anything. I doubt this will launch a series, so it's probably just an odd one-off: Brust has a history of writing a semi-experimental novel with a female writer (The Gypsy with Megan Lindholm and Feedom & Necessity with Emma Bull) every decade or so. There's nothing at all wrong with The Incrementalists: it does what it sets out to do, and does it well. But it does something much smaller and less inherently interesting than the expectations set up by its world, which is where that disappointment comes in.  

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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