The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White
The Incrementalists—a secret society of two hundred people with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this is older than most of their individual memories.
Phil, whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has loved Celeste—and argued with her—for most of the last four hundred years. But now Celeste, recently dead, embittered, and very unstable, has changed the rules—not incrementally, and not for the better. Now the heart of the group must gather in Las Vegas to save the Incrementalists, and maybe the world.
I’ve been fascinated by the concept behind The Incrementalists since I first stumbled across a “coming soon” mention of it several months ago. In fact, back in July, this was one of my Wishlist Wednesday selections, and I was really excited to finally get my hands on a copy.
So did it live up to my expectations?
Yes and no.
I’m reminded of the line from Julius Caesar (oh, shush, stop rolling your eyes at me just because I’m quoting Shakespeare!): “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves…”
In the case of The Incrementalists, I think the fact that this book didn’t entirely work for me is less about the book itself than about me.
Me, me, me… and now I sound incredibly self-centered. It’s all about me!
But seriously… I think I expected much more of a paranormal thriller of some sort. Secret societies! Shared memories! Cheating death! But that’s not really what The Incrementalists is.
Instead, it’s a smart, intellectual science fiction brain-teaser centered almost entirely around something called The Garden, an “exo-brain” or virtual world that all Incrementalists can access mentally. It’s a non-material space in which Incrementalists can store (or “seed”) their memories, then invite other members of the group to “graze” their “seeds”. When an Incrementalist’s body dies, the others choose a new “Second” to receive the deceased’s “stub” — his or her essence, which will then basically fight the recipient’s personality for dominance until the weaker personality is integrated into the stronger. In this way, the personalities live on in an unbroken chain for hundreds or even thousands of years, being “spiked” into new bodies whenever needed.
The terminology of the Incrementalists includes terms like “switches”, “pivots”, and “sugar spoons”, and just boggled my mind after a while. While the plot is fast-paced and included some really clever and unusual characters, I often felt that I was missing something.
More about me — I consider myself a fairly smart reader and it’s not often that I feel that I can’t keep up. The Incrementalists made me feel like a cave-dweller at times. As the virtual worlds — and virtual chase scenes — became more and more complex, I increasingly felt like I was losing the plot thread and didn’t understand what was going on.
Which was frustrating. Because I like The Incrementalists quite a bit, and especially liked main characters Phil and Ren. Their story and their growing relationship was marvelous and tricky and intellectual and challenging. And yet, I finished the book feeling like I’d only understood a portion of the details, and while I got the big picture, I couldn’t tell you exactly why it had worked out the way it did, or even what specifically had transpired.
To sum it all up: For someone who enjoys virtual worlds, artificial intelligence and constructs, symbols and multiple realities, this would probably be a great choice. It’s certainly not your run-of-the-mill thriller, and it definitely will send your brain into overdrive. I do think The Incrementalists is quite a good book. I just think that perhaps I wasn’t the right reader for it.
Title: The Incrementalists
Author: Steven Brust and Skyler White
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Tor/Forge via NetGalley