I sometimes wonder if book critics know something I don’t. Michiko Kakutani, New York Times book critic. Holder of secret knowledge that permits her to appreciate the literary tomes too serious for dilettantes such as myself. Let me join you, Michiko. Take me on a spirit quest.
I wonder the same thing about authors. Authors rarely give books negative reviews. Is it because, learned as they are in the art of writing, they better understand what their fellow writers are trying to do with a particular book or story? Or is it self-interest? “I won’t publicly dis someone in the industry, lest they do the same to me.” Consider John Scalzi’s blurb on the cover of The Incrementalists: “Secret societies, immortality, murder mysteries, and Las Vegas all in one book? Shut up and take my money.” I’m pretty sure Scalzi didn’t have to buy the book, since his quote is on the cover. But then, I didn’t, either. I borrowed it from the library. To recall another member of a different secret society, I chose wisely.
Scalzi’s endorsement of the book seems apt. The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White, is about secret societies and murder and poker. The eponymous Incrementalists are a small group that worked throughout forty thousand years of human history to slowly (read: incrementally) improve the lot of mankind. They’re not do-gooders; they’re do-betters. MP3s? Thank the Incrementalists. A mom stops verbally abusing her family? Same guys. Promising premise. Disappointing execution.
The plot of The Incrementalists revolves around Phil’s choice of a new recruit, Ren, following the death of his fellow Incrementalist and lover, Celeste. Through “meddling,” or manipulating a person by learning and using their triggers to direct them toward a likely course of action, Phil is able to quickly persuade Ren to join the group. Trouble ensues when Ren’s initiation goes wrong, and Phil learns that someone has been messing with “the Garden,” the shared memories of all Incrementalists over time. The action proceeds from there, as Phil and his colleagues work to save Ren and protect the group’s work.
The story is structured so that chapters alternate between Phil’s and Ren’s first person perspectives. Chapters are short, sometimes at no more than two pages, and the action is swift. The effect is disorienting, as the reader is passed back and forth from one character to another and constantly forced to readjust to a different point of view. I suspect that this was deliberate on the part of Brust and Skyler. The reader is buffeted from both sides as Ren acclimates to her new status and Phil tries to remedy whatever is wrong. Halfway through the book, though, it was giving me a headache.
That disorientation is further exacerbated by terms and concepts unique to the story. Readers of science-fiction and fantasy are accustomed to quickly coming to terms with strange words and ideas. We expect there to be dropped into an incomprehensible world in which understanding dawns on us over a hundred (or more) pages. I never experienced the epiphany for which I hoped as I read The Incrementalists. There is a lot of vocabulary here, such as “stubs” and “Seconds,” that has to do with the process of transferring an Incrementalist’s memories to a living person. The terms are clear, but I wasn’t able to keep them straight over the course of the book. The Garden, too, and the ways in which memories are stored and accessed, function like magic, but are explained in ways so muddled that they didn’t make much sense. I felt like I was supposed to understand, though, and that was frustrating. Authors: chalk it up to the mysteries of magic or make it crystal clear, but please don’t create something so convoluted that it requires a flowchart to sort it out.
It probably seems that I’m angry at the book, or Brust and White, and maybe I am. I don’t expect to come away from a sci-fi novel confused. At the very least, I want to be entertained. I wasn’t. And the premise! The premise was so promising! Expect Brust and White to expand on it in sequels.
What you need to know: Many readers will enjoy The Incrementalists. If you read Scalzi’s blurb and think it sounds interesting, you might like this book. The action moves quickly and it reads fast, at just over 300 pages. Las Vegas makes for a unique setting. The premise is intriguing, and some of the characters are interesting. Still, there is a steep learning curve as the reader comes up to speed with what an Incrementalist is and how they work.