Let me be honest: I’m a fan of Steven Brust. I like his complex world-building, his characters and his willingness to integrate challenging issues of race and class (and occasionally gender) into his writing. Unfortunately, while I was predisposed to love The Incrementalists, it fell flat for me.
We meet Phil at the World Series of Poker in Vegas, otherwise abbreviated as WSoP (that’s right. Abbreviations were used in the text, like we all know what it is). Renee has just flown into town to meet with a client. Phil approaches her in a coffee shop, and despite her initial brush-off, manages to get himself an invitation to sit down. He tells Renee he is part of a worldwide, millennia-spanning secret organization that tries to ‘better’ humanity by nudging it in little ways–we are supposed to believe they are responsible for the MP3 as well as certain indirect actions that led to Grant’s abilities during the Civil War (although scant specifics are given for either). But there is, of course, a catch: becoming part of the organization means inviting a prior personality into your own mind, including their memories. One of the personalities will come out on top, but retain the memories of the other (don’t ask how it happens or why people agree). Phil invites Ren into the group, and offers to let her think about it. Surprisingly, Ren agrees immediately. Chaos ensues when Ren’s past personality doesn’t ‘take.’
Narrative is first-person, shifting between Phil and Renee, often multiple times in the same chapter. Someone decided to use some pretty cursive typeset to head the sections with “Phil” or “Ren,” and to my (apparently) aging eyes, sometimes I had to look twice to verify who I was reading. You should infer, then, that there was a problem in characterization, that I needed to consciously identify narrator when the options are a two-thousand year old personality who is currently a male poker player living in Vegas or a thirty year-old single female program designer with a penchant for telling people off. Or something. Characterization never really succeed, and worsened when it evolved into mutual longing. Besides Phil and Ren, there’s a group of main Incrementalists (Oskar, Irina and others), the personality that is grafted onto Ren’s, Celeste, and a brief appearance of a couple of Ren’s connections. Celeste is by far the most dimensional; the rest feel like the ‘not-Brad, not-George’ remainder of the team in Ocean’s Eleven.
The authors also use a technique of extremely short emails to head many of the sections. Again, it becomes a serious ‘voice’ issue. When your character isn’t conveyed well, the artificial structure of email and the professional tone makes it that much worse. Yes, I actually had to look at the email addresses.
One of the characteristics of Brust’s writing is slow and indirect world-building, done partly by focusing on seemingly non-significant details. In Vlad Taltos’ world, he does this with food, magic rituals and clothing. In The Incrementalists, he does this with poker. I confess, I’m infinitely more interested in food than poker, and far more friendly an introduction for the non-poker player (consider all poker analogies completely missed). As an aside, what a disappointment in the food here! For a writer that loves to dwell on the description of sausage cooked in a red pepper sauce (pick any Taltos book), here the focus is alcohol and pizza with a cup of matzo-ball soup for variety. Yes, you heard that. In Vegas. They choose to snack on pizza. This is the world-building. Frankly, it pretty felt like anywhere, anywhen U.S.A. and possibly Canada.
There’s also loads of detail on the memory devices the society uses, but initially very little detail on how the personality transfer occurs, along with specialized lingo like “Second” and “stub” (a most unglamorous word). It becomes this strange situation that is supposed to be immensely significant and alarming, and yet is almost meaningless for the reader. It’s as if someone on Star Trek started yelling, “Captain, the flux capacitators are overloaded” and all the characters turn with horrified expressions on their faces, and then proceed to talk about flux capacitators and the different ways they can go wrong. As a reader, I have to feel connected to something here, and I didn’t get time to care about Ren before she faced acclimation problems, and Phil was busy playing poker, and I certainly can’t care about the capacitators, although I know I’m supposed to, clearly, because everyone is running around shocked… honestly, it’s more than a bit of confusion.
Speaking of caring, for the most part, a significant chunk of the book is essentially a philosophical treatise. There is little real action, and much of the interaction has to do with exploring the concepts of memory, identity, self-direction, initiative and connection. Although we are told the group is responsible for some major events, the only meddling we witness (with the exception of the main plot) is with Ren’s boss. One of the group members even pays off a taxi driver instead of incentivizing him using his special skills.
Then there is the romance part of things, With the male-female, experience-novice set-up, clearly it was a situation ripe for romance, and it tried to deliver. I wonder, in fact, if this would have been more coherent if it was edited to be a little bit more Bridge Across Forever, or Griffin and Sabine-ish, instead of how it played out. It didn’t really want to be a romance, even thought it really was.
And the sex scene, dear heavens, the sex scenes. You know what occurred to me when I read them? One, people, stop equating roughness with desire. Good heavens, Brust, you are old enough to know better. Second, it’s always a little sad when your favorite authors lose some of their shine. I must have twelve Brust books on my shelf and there isn’t one explicit sex scene among them. There is, however, a very complex relationship between Taltos and a human revolutionary. What happened, that he felt the need to combine a significant romantic plot with a philosophical debate and exhortation to live better?
I won’t be spoilery, but the end had me cringing. I don’t disagree, mind you, but it was self-conscious and awkward.
Ultimately, great ideas, mediocre execution.