In my view, a new novel by Steven Brust is something to be eagerly awaited. And when he collaborates with another writer, the results can be both unexpected and very rewarding. And so, I opened The Incrementalists with a large measure of anticipation.
The Incrementalists are a group who have been guiding humanity toward a better world for some 40,000 years. Well, maybe “nudging” would be a better word – they call it “meddling,” and it simply means that they influence the (hopefully) right people at the (hopefully) right time to achieve the desired result. The group has developed means of maintaining continuity from generation to generation by transferring personalities – memories, attitudes, reactions – from a Primary to a Secondary through a “stake.” Each has a garden in which he or she keeps memories and ideas in the form of images and metaphors.
Phil has “lived” in this fashion for some sixteen hundred years, by far the longest continuity of any current Incrementalist. That’s because one of the risks they take is that, when they are transplanted to a new host, there’s no guarantee which personality will dominate. The memories will be there, but the personality – not necessarily. And Phil now has to stake a new Secondary for Celeste, whom he has loved and fought for four hundred years. Celeste committed suicide, it seems, and the new Secondary, Renee – who goes by “Ren” – is willing to join the group. There’s one problem. Ren doesn’t remember Celeste, except in fits and starts. And then other problems start to crop up.
It seems Celeste wasn’t exactly playing by the rules.
Readers who like everything laid out plainly are going to hate this book – nothing is up front. I was struck by how much of the story happens behind the words: it comes in layers and as they get unpeeled, one discovers more layers. It’s told by Phil and Ren, trading off first-person narratives, and we don’t know any more than they do. It’s a matter of riding along, as the reader, as the characters unravel what’s going on. That unraveling produces a lot of tension in the narrative, and a good, strong momentum.
There’s also a lot of Incrementalist terminology – Gardens, stakes, triggers, and the like – that only comes clear as the story progresses. Add in a layer of poker terms (it all takes place in Las Vegas, and Phil makes his living playing poker), and it can become quite confusing, unless you are willing to go with the flow – meanings do appear, sometimes subtly, occasionally by direct explanation. The characters, on the other hand, are drawn clearly and concisely – we have a good picture of the other Incrementalists involved, Oskar, Ray, Jimmy, Irina, and, gradually, Celeste.
The one thing I can consider a flaw is that there’s not a lot of differentiation between the narrators, Phil and Ren. The tone and diction of their segments is a little too similar – I found myself waiting for a tell-tale pronoun in some of the lengthier sections, so I could figure out who was talking. (That, by the way, is a very hard thing to pull off, and if you get as absorbed by the narrative flow as I did, you might not even notice. But then, that’s why I get the big bucks.)
In a lot of ways, this is classic Brust: the deception, the layers of motivations, the slowly unraveling mystery (we don’t really know what the mystery is until well into the book), the need to dig below the surface of the narrative. I’m not familiar with Skyler White’s work (no, not the character from Breaking Bad, the writer of contemporary fantasy novels), but given that this is a new kind of milieu for Brust, I suspect her contribution is substantial, if not immediately apparent.
In the final analysis, if you, like me, believe that the audience has to provide half the experience of any work of art, you’ll be intrigued, puzzled, and highly rewarded by The Incrementalists