Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists Steven Brust Skyler White cover revealThe Concept

You've seen the one about the big, long-enduring, highly organized secret society committed to maintaining a secret lock on the world's key resources.  And you've seen the one about the secret organization that just got ready to launch its long-prepared bid for dominance of the world.  But Steven Brust and Skyler White don't recycle either in The Incrementalists.  The Incrementalists comprise a scrappy little (dis)organization whose uncoordinated efforts focus on tiny actions to make the world a little better.

Isn't that a change from the secret plotting you're used to being led to believe is behind ancient secret organizations that wield weird powers over the mortal realm?

It's about time.

The Plot
Once you've been introduced to a leaderless band of potentially long-lived personalities, you have to start wondering what happens when they disagree with or misunderstand one another.  And guess what?  The confusion generated by their misunderstandings and disagreements immediately reveals mysteries the reader wants to see solved.  Who killed Celeste?  Who's after Ren?  Why?  The Incrementalists presents a mystery, and an adventure:  come join a secret society that's being torn up over your joining it.  Some of whom blame you.


The Pace
The pace isn't a Dan Brown thriller's:  The Incrementalists' conflict is largely mental.  Who's the victim, who's fooling whom, who really loves whom, who's the villain hiding from whom and where … and behind everything: why?  There aren't so much car chases and shootouts as arguments and poisonings.  In comparison to other Brust books, this is paced much more like Dzur than, say, Jhereg. The Incrementalists' pace feels suited to a story about people who are trying to remain secret, and show real antipathy for unnecessarily being made to expend effort to keep hidden, when there's something interesting that'd be more fun to do instead.

Pretty soon, the reader is treated to debates about the merits of attempted revolution, and whether shadowy organizations should Save The Known World (for some definition of "Save", if you can sort out just what that means – the characters are refreshingly willing to disagree what that means). The tale teeters as if it might careen into a big story about a battle for control over the future of humanity.  But panic within the Incrementalists' own order derails debate.  The bulk of The Incrementalists is about individuals and their fears, not some scheme to save the world. 

Sure, the characters have ideas how best to save the world.  There ideas fuel suspicions, but not the immediate conflict.  It's about the Incrementalists themselves, and how they conflict with one another.  And the fun in that is exactly that it's new:  we've seen secret societies used to fuel battles for control of the world before, and we will see them again – this is a chance to enjoy a story about people who are fighting to survive the secret society from the inside.

The Plausibility
Look here.  I've already compared this to Dzur and then Jhereg, and you want to hear about plausibility?  Please.  It's a fantasy.  People with super-normal powers, plotting.  Entertainingly, they seem to want to plot for humanity.  But the fact that the world in it contains cities with names we know and technologies with which we're familiar doesn't mean it's really the world we know.

Of course, there is the wonderful fourth-wall-breaking self-referential fun at the end – maybe they want to meddle in our world as much as their own.  It's fun.

And on that point …

The Politics
One probably shouldn't need a content warning in fantasy.  And The Incrementalists isn't about politics.  But I will make what I hope is a short note for those who aren't predisposed to enjoy a story with this politics in the scenery.  In my review of Cracked, I included a similar warning to those readers who turned on Jim Butcher when religion appeared in his Dresden Files, and said that Cracked's religious content ratcheted up much more quickly: readers too thin-skinned about religion to tolerate its presence (even in the context of a story that treats with equal seriousness the politics among faeries and the purpose of the Winter Queen) should be aware before reading that characters are motivated by and believe in some real-world religious tenets.  A similar situation exists in The Incrementalists, but with politics.

So here it is.  The Incrementalists is full of characters who are interested in making the world better.  A few of these characters espouse … (surprise!) … political convictions.  And the authors don't make the heavens fall on them as a result.

Now, the plot doesn't turn on politics or their correctness (though if it had turned into a world-domination thriller it certainly could have), so a reader needn't adopt a single political view in the book to enjoy the characters' mystery or its investigation or the ensuing conflicts and their resolution.  You should be just fine.  But if you're particularly sensitive … well, be warned the characters have political views, and assign good and bad values to historic events that involve politics.  And it shows up in more subtle ways: a main character is shown using PowerPoint for work, but Google products in her off-hours.  She's described as once accusing a boss of making Gates look like Stallman.  Details of this sort are part of how the character is sketched.  You don't need to put the GNU license on your own code to enjoy the book, though.  So, like … chill.

If you want to read a Brust fantasy in which the politics of the people out to save the world don't remind you of the things that bother you about the politics in the world you know, consider his hilarious and fun homage to Alexander Dumas, The Phoenix Guards.  Or – set in the same world – most of the books about Vlad Taltos (Brust's character Khaavren, appearing in both, shows up in this site's sidebar among my favorite characters).

The Point
The Incrementalists involves a new superpower, with new types of things to go wrong.  And its structure isn't a retread of some well-established world-domination plot.  In fact, the main characters' biggest disagreement in life seems to be how best to save humanity.  The conflict between good people about how to do good is a change from the war against Voldemort and his hoards of power-hungry thugs.

It'd spoil the story to describe in much detail what the story is about.  But it's no danger to expose that it follows people who struggle with whom to trust, whom to love, whom to protect, whom to attack … and whether to act at all.  Maybe it's new in defining a new set of rules for the superpower that makes the Incrementalists work as an organization, but let's face it:  in dealing with human failings and human struggles, it's very old indeed.  The authors' decisions whom to make antagonists and how to motivate them say some important things about what they think the real problems in the world are – problems much more basic than – and beyond – politics.  The authors avoid intercontinental battles for world domination to comment on what's worth fighting for – and worth living for.

It's not by chance that one of Brust's characters sits on the right of every page of this site on a list of all-time favorite characters.  Are there more exciting page-turners?  Sure.  But a good character is worth her weight in gold.  How much of The Incrementalists do you spend fearing for Ren?  And why?  How much of the book do you spend hoping one of the do-gooders will figure out what the only obviously good thing to do is?  What (beyond the fact they aren't reading her first-person narrative) keeps them from seeing what they should be doing about her situation?  These questions are much more important to the story than whether some world power will be nudged into nuclear disarmament.

The Incrementalists says something about personal values, priorities, or character.  Maybe it'll assure you what you treasure most in your life is treasured even by immortal superheroes, and you have it made already.  Maybe it'll remind you of your own struggle to conquer the only part of the known universe that matters.  The point of The Incrementalists isn't to explain how to save the world, but how a few people fought to save themselves – and, maybe how everyone can.

It's a murder mystery with no corpse and an adventure without leaving town and it's a lot of fun.  It's absolutely worth reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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