Book Review: The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists
Published By: Tor Books
Publication Date: September 2013
Page Count: 304
Source: Library
Audience: Adult - Science Fiction

The Incrementalists are an ancient organization of a couple hundred semi-immortal people who steer human development by giving key people in history a little nudge here and a little guidance there. The goal of the organization is to make life better a little at a time. From time to time, they recruit new members who take on the collective memories of an older member and whose personality may end up taking over. Ren’s recruitment to the organization is the culmination of a centuries-long battle between several members of the organization about how best to meddle (their word) in the affairs of normal humans. 

The whole concept of The Incrementalists is what drew me to this book in the first place. Secret society, you say? Changing the course of human history, you say? Bizarro memory transfers and personalities that persist through centuries? Sign. Me. Up. Right? Except, despite all the things this story had going for it, it wasn’t executed in a way that was enjoyable to me. Yes, the concept of the story is brilliant (brilliant!), but it lacked the level of development I’ve come to expect from Steven Brust. Oh man, did I not want to write this kind of review! 

My problems with this book fall into two categories. First, we don’t learn very much about the Incrementalists themselves. I’d think with a forty thousand year history, they would have more stories to tell new recruits than that they were behind the MP3 format. I mean, yes they’re all about incremental change, but surely they can trace how those small things add up to big things over time. Also Brust and White give little information about how the Incrementalists started, how their organization is structured, or about how exactly the memories and personalities are transferred to a new recruit. It is explained in a somewhat metaphorical way, but I wanted to understand the concrete mechanism. 

Second, the book cycles quickly between Ren’s point of view and Phil’s (her recruiter). I usually enjoy seeing from the perspectives of different characters, but it quickly became confusing in this particular book. There were numerous scenes that I had to double back and reread which threw me out of the story. 

Final thought, maybe it’s just hard for me to get excited by a group that only wants to make things a little bit better? The take home point is this: if you’re a super fan of either Steven Brust or Skyler White and have an OCD compulsion to read everything they’ve ever written, by all means go for it. The concept behind The Incrementalists is a kick! But if you’re a more casual reader, I can happily steer you to some of Brust’s finer work.

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.