In The Incrementalists, a group of about two hundred people have learned how to transfer some aspect of their consciousness from body to body, effectively living forever. They’ve decided that, since they’re going to be around, it’d be preferable to hone the world for the better, and ensure not just their survival, but the overall quality of their lives in a constantly improving world. To accomplish this, they engage in what they call “meddlework,” subtly pushing the human race towards making the best possible decisions. It’s a slow process, but appropriate for people with literally all the time in the world.
It gets knotty, though, because there are differing opinions about what direction is best for humanity. They have an entire shared history of memories to inform their actions, but sometimes vastly different thoughts about what the best approach is for making the world a better place. And, since they are masters of meddling with people, sometimes they try and curve things by meddling with each other.
Steven Brust and Skyler White’s new novel is a veritable thicket of conflicts and big ideas, distilled and displayed through a small portion of this fascinating community. Phil has been given the responsibility of approaching and convincing Ren, the group’s newest recruit. If she agrees, the consciousness of Celeste will be implanted in her. It’s an important decision for a recruit to make. If she accepts she’ll carry this new consciousness, which could overtake or even replace her own. Phil expects her to need time to weigh the decision, but she jumps at the opportunity instead. Now he needs to help her adjust and accept the consequences of this decision, which may have been set into motion by meddlework on the part of Celeste before she died. Complicating things further is that Celeste and Phil have a history that reaches back lifetimes.
Brust and White deftly execute the trick of presenting a fully realized, complicated world through very human terms. They’ve structured the book to swap POV back and forth between Ren and Phil, which illustrates both Phil’s familiarity and Ren’s confusion with the Incrementalists. At times the world they’ve created seems enormous and overwhelming, before zooming in to focus on Ren and Phil, letting their developing relationship drive the story. The book’s greatest strength is in keeping those personal moments sharp and relatable, when there are so many implications to the meddlework concept to explore. Instead of being a secret society with a very distinct plan for where humanity should end up, we’re given a society feeling its way forward, slightly ahead of the rest of us. Whatever system Brust and White established to split the writing, there are no visible seams to their work. The switching between points of view is easy to follow, and there’s no sense the overall quality drops in the hand-offs between each POV. What’s most interesting is the way the story moves swiftly even as it’s driven by conversations that feel languid.
Finding the best terms to describe The Incrementalists is difficult. Even in the story, characters themselves reach for the best words and phrases to articulate the concepts that define their actions. Terms like consciousness and self feel right, but also maddeningly inadequate. Still, even though the proper words to describe it feel just out of reach, the overall experience of reading The Incrementalists was definitely worthwhile.