Steven Brust and Skyler White's The Incrementalists is a spectacular new contemporary fantasy novel about an immortal cabal of dysfunctional do-gooders who use their subtle, near-wizardly powers of persuasion to alter the course of history, and change bodies by implanting their memories into the bodies of successors chosen from the population at large.
Though I'm new to Skyler White, I am a gigantic fan of Steven Brust, and this book was an absolute home-run for me. Thematically, it's close to The Sun, the Moon and the Stars -- to my mind, his great, neglected masterpiece -- in its philosophical depth, emotional range, and sense of deep, fabled magic. But the collaboration with White is extremely fruitful: the authors trade off writing from different points-of-view within chapters, providing a glimpse of the godhead-like group mind of the Incrementalists themselves. After the first couple of switches, I stopped trying to guess who was writing what -- it felt like a style that was neither Brust's, nor White's, but a superior hybrid of both.
On one level, this is a zippy, noirish story about a fractious criminal conspiracy in modern-day Las Vegas. There are murders and attempted murders, chase scenes, loud arguments and sneaky scheming. But on another level, it's a book about what duty the human race owes to itself, and what human beings owe to one another, a profound philosophical book about the theory of history, the practice of user-experience design, networked politics, and the role of ritual and convention in binding us together (you can get a flavor of this in Fireworks in the Rain, an Incrementalists story Brust published on Tor.com; and in the essay the pair wrote for John Scalzi's blog).
The Incrementalists, a secret society of around 200 people has, since the beginning of human history, been working to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this stretches across nations, races, and time, but they’ve been messing (“meddling”) with people’s heads just as long. Able to draw from a collective experience of over forty thousand years, and skilled in triggering precise emotions in others, they pick pivotal moments to subtly nudge people to maybe do the right thing, or maybe refrain from doing quite as much of the wrong thing.
So, if they were real (and, you know, you can’t prove they aren’t), how are they doing so far? You could say they’re doing pretty well, given all the catastrophes our species has avoided, how much progress we’ve made, and how many terrible things might have been even worse. Or you could say they are utterly ineffective, given how screwed up so many things are. They key word in all of that is: You.
You get to decide. That’s the point, and that’s one of the things that made this project so much fun, because the big idea behind The Incrementalists is a question. It’s the “what if” question that got us writing, but it is also, if we’ve done our job well, a question we’ve seeded in the minds of the readers. Just how do you fit into all of this? How do you choose to engage with the book, with the imaginary world in which it takes place, with the real world that the imaginary world is drawn from?
The Incrementalists often gets singled out as a collaborative project because there are two authors; but every book is a collaborative project. Just as the characters in The Incrementalists cooperate despite annoyances and conflicts, and just as its authors cooperated despite occasionally differing visions and expectations, this book—every book—asks readers to cooperate in the story-telling process. Writers need readers to shape the worlds they sketch, see the characters they imagine, hear what they’ve written and intuit what they’ve suggested.
As has been said many times before by many people, there is no reason to expect what the reader sees to be what we see; indeed, there is no reason to expect what Skyler sees to be what Steve sees. They don’t have to be the same; they can’t be the same. What matters is that they can dance together. The writers, the editors, the art director and everyone in production, the voice actors for the audio book, the readers, and even the reviewers are part of the process that makes a book what it is.