Published: September 24th, 2013
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
Length: 8 hrs and 52 mins
The Incrementalists has a killer premise and a rave from John Scalzi on the cover, so I was understandably impatient to read it as soon as it came out. The book focuses on the members of a secret society that uses psychological manipulation to make small changes that hopefully have larger effects on the course of human history. This “meddling” is all in the name of making the world a “better than good” place. These Incrementalists, as they call themselves, have the benefit of several millennia of stored memories and history guiding them in their work. In fact, a large part of what makes their group work so well are the methods they use to pass down memories and maintain continuity over time.
All Incrementalists have a shared mental space they refer to as “The Garden”, where every member has an imaginary home of their own, used to store or “seed” memories, data and the psychological triggers required for mental manipulations. This combined with their ability to pass on memories and personalities from dead to new members makes them a formidable force when necessary. However, subtlety is the watchword for Incrementalists, and ethical considerations are always an important driver for every choice they make. Brust and White pepper in this world-building throughout, and although it does occasionally get a bit metaphysical, it’s easily the most interesting part of the book.
However, the meat of the story focuses on two Incrementalists in particular, Phil and Ren. Phil is the oldest continuous Incrementalist. Becoming an Incrementalist means being implanted with the memories and personality or “stub” of a deceased former member. When this happens, the two personalities vie for dominance. In Phil’s case, his personality has come out on top for longer than any other member of the group, which gives him seniority without necessarily making him infallible. Ren is a new recruit that Phil brings into the fold to replace the late Celeste, Phil’s tempestuous sometimes partner and former lover.
Ren is wide-eyed and ambitious, and surprisingly eager to join a strange cabal of semi-immortal meddlers, so it isn’t long before the recruitment process finishes and Ren finds herself implanted with Celeste’s stub. Naturally, that is when the shit hits the fan. Somehow the process doesn’t go through correctly, and instead of coming out the other end with all of Celeste’s history at her command, Ren has a hard time remembering who the hell this Celeste is everyone keeps ranting about. When the other Incrementalists start looking into the problem, they discover hidden sabotage and go into full-on panic mode. Accusations, manipulation, and attempted murder all come into play, and the group finds itself at a loss for the solution.
However, this is where the premise began unraveling for me. When I picked up the book, I had certain expectations that I’d be reading about a society of people spending their time manipulating the world around them. In practice, however, it turns out that most of the meddling involves nothing more than convincing Ren’s boss to put off a conference call so that she can stay focused on Incrementalist matters. Ren does meddle with a cocktail waitress at one point, but it doesn’t amount to anything of note. Other than that, the Incrementalists spend most of their time dealing with a storyline that feels like nothing so much as metaphysical office politics. It’s a bit hard to care about a possibly corrupt secret society that does little more than manipulate its own members.
Then, of course, there’s the romance storyline. Shortly after Phil and Ren meet, they are in love. Part of it is the latent memory of Celeste influencing them both, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it feels like the characters go from strangers to passionate lovers in no time flat. It doesn’t help that I never really got much of a sense of either character as a person; they both felt a bit underdeveloped. Instead of feeling like a release or a rush of emotion, the romance scenes played more like passion by default.
Ultimately, although I found the premise intriguing, the plot wasn’t all that compelling. It is possible that my audiobook listening habits were part of the problem, however. I just haven’t been making time for audiobooks recently, so I listened in fits and starts over the course of a month. On the other hand, if the book had grabbed me, I’m sure I would have made more time to listen.
One more note for audiobook listeners: Ray Porter and Mary Robinette Kowal are both wonderful, talented narrators, but for some reason they use different accents for the same characters. A head-scratching choice and particularly confusing when the narrators switch in the middle of a scene.