Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Skill of Our Hands by Steven Brust and Skyler White

The most weak-ass world-ruling conspiracy returns in 2017's The Skill of Our Hands, a sequel to 2014's chamber succession drama The Incrementalists. (See that link for my review.) And, this time out, they're slightly more concerned with changing the world than they were in the first book, but they're still not all that good at it.

Let me repeat: after ten thousand years, they're still shit at manipulating history.

In fact, this book starts with the murder of one of them, Phil, the oldest and wisest Incrementalist with the longest unbroken history behind him, giving him centuries of direct experience. He's trying to nudge US border-enforcement policy in a slightly less draconian direction, and all he gets for it is three bullets in the spine.

(If we assume this series is set in the real world, which I admit is not at all fair to authors Steven Brust and Skyler White, we can also extrapolate that whatever the Incrementalists were doing actually made things worse since the time this book chronicles. They do claim to do that, sometimes -- to nudge things in the opposite direction that they want, "countermeddling" in order that some backlash, someday, will do the way they want. Hey! Their minds are immortal; what do they care?)

The Incrementalists each have an unbroken memory stretching back ten thousand years -- though the exact personality accessing that memory tends to only last a few hundred years before being supplanted by a new host's original mind. They share an extradimensional space called the Garden, where they can all access each other's memories -- well, not all of each other's memories, or not consistently, though the rules of how and why particular memories are "seeded" there and what another Incrementalist can "graze" for are still not clear to me. There are two hundred of them, scattered throughout the world. They are not rich; they control no major businesses or nations; they are barely organized at the best of times even though they can walk through each other's subconscious whenever they want to. They all seem to work ordinary jobs as normal people, with Incrementalism as their shared secret hobby, like numismatics or crewel-work. They seem to only rarely work with each other on their meddling projects.

Frankly, if the Garden was a YouTube channel, this series would make more sense: that's about the level of their activities.

The Skill of Our Hands includes a secondary historical plot, following Phil (then called Carter) just before the US Civil War. This mostly serves to show that the Incrementalists never had much influence on anything, and spent their time trying to use their oh-so-carefully-researched "switches" (sense memories that their targets associate with various emotions) in mostly fruitless conversations with people who don't want to change their opinions .

The Incrementalists, bluntly, don't ever run anything, take over anything, gather power or money or fame to themselves. Instead, their aim is to quietly talk, one-to-one, with people who might actually do things, and use tricky smells and humming snatches of songs to make those people do what the Incrementalists want.

As I've now said a couple of times, not even Brust and White claim that this has much effect.

More so: Brust and White don't claim, anywhere that I noticed, any major world movements or moments for their Incrementalists. They are the BASF of conspiracies -- they didn't cause WWII, but they say they made it ever-so-slightly less horrific than it otherwise would have been. And they can prove this by...well, no, actually they can't. They just know that they meddle in things, and, apparently, every once in a while things actually happen the way they're hoping, though that seems to be exceptionally rare from the evidence of these two novels.

In this book, they're once again trying to find a new "second" for a dead Incrementalist, another one killed by violence in just a couple of years in the Western US. There are some unusual aspects to the transition this time, but most of the plot is the same as the first book: the Incrementalists are spiky people who reflexively argue and disagree with each other. So what we have here is mostly three hundred pages, again, of people in rooms talking about how they should interfere with history -- which, again, hardly ever does anything at all -- and what body they should shove Phil's "stub" into -- which, frankly, doesn't seem to matter much at all.

I like reading Brust's prose. His work here with White is just as readable as anything else in his career. And these people are real, entirely well-rounded. The fact that I don't care about their problems is a different issue. The fact that they've spent hundreds of lifetimes doing something that seems entirely useless at its core, though, is something Brust and White should have thought more seriously about before they published two novels about these people.

If they set out to write a snarky object lesson about why pacifist anarchists will never have political power anywhere, good for them. Otherwise, I'm not really sure what the point of this series is.

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