#CBR6 Review #13 – The Incrementalists
Profile: Speculative Fiction
After Action Report:
As a concept, The Incrementalists is a pretty impressive pitch. A secret society of quasi-immortal do-gooders dedicated to the slow improvement of mankind suddenly threatened by one of their own sounds like a great, high concept blockbuster. But The Incrementalists can’t seem to decide if it’s supposed to be more like ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ or ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ and flounders unpleasantly somewhere between the two. There are a lot of good ideas here, but the novel feels undirected at best and a confused mess at worst.
The book opens after the death of Celeste, a senior member of the Incrementalists. Phil, her lover and fellow senior Incrementalist, is tasked with finding her replacement and initiating her. This process involves transferring the memories of Celeste, and all of the other people who Celeste has been, into a new person. This new person is Renee, called Ren. But something goes wrong in the process and now ‘Celeste’ is missing and Ren is losing her mind. It falls to Phil and Ren to get to the root of the problem before it unravels the Incrementalists for good.
The narrative is split more or less equally between Phil and Ren, each telling the story from their perspective. Phil plays the role of mentor, both for Ren and the reader, introducing the heady concepts that underlie the Incrementalists. For her part, Ren is a bit of an awkward protagonist, accepting things at face value a bit too readily to be believable. Some of this behavior is explained, but those first few pages establish her as somewhat incredible, in the sense that she lacks credibility. In spite of this, her interactions with Phil are interesting, and the start of the book is very strong as it explores the concept of the Incrementalists, their methods, and the crisis waiting just under the surface of it all.
If Brust and White had limited the scope of the story to a conflict between Incrementalists, waged with their trademark psychological manipulation and eye for the long game, The Incrementalists would have been a much stronger novel. Unfortunately, the authors seemed to get bogged down in the conceptual exploration of multi-generational memories and personalities that accompany them. A significant portion of the book is spent introspectively dealing with the concepts of love and friendship through this lens of long memories. In scenes very reminiscent of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ Ren confronts the feelings she has for Phil and can’t quite determine if they are real or part of Celeste’s memories.
The odd thing is I don’t really dislike these scenes. They don’t add to the plot and they bog down the pacing a great deal, but at the same time I have a kind of respect for the attempt. I don’t know if there is a good way to write about memory. It is such a critical aspect of our lives, but it seems to lack a fundamental affinity with words that makes ‘Memory’ hard to write about in the abstract. ‘Eternal Sunshine’ is kind of an impossible standard to hold anything up to, because it captured some of the ephemeral nature of our minds in a medium that uniquely reproduces our experience of the world. I can’t really commend Brust and White for their take on these ideas, but I don’t feel comfortable saying they did it wrong when I don’t have a firm grip on what ‘right’ looks like here.
But there are other things that get in the way of The Incrementalists’ success. Phil and Ren’s awkward relationship feels very creepy, partly because of the mental age difference, but more because it isn’t clear that Ren has any feelings at all for Phil. How much of her character is her and how much is the imprint of Celeste? This underlying question is great for the memory plotline, but raises serious doubts about her ability to consent to a relationship or sex. For his part, Phil is unable to separate his love for the Celeste persona and his new, much more physical, attraction to Ren. This dynamic makes both characters less sympathetic and introduces a very tangible ick-factor into the romantic side-plot.
At the end of the day, I tend to be more interested in the ideas and motivations at work in speculative fiction than I am the plot details. And there are some great ideas here. But the execution tangibly detracts from the conceptual elements here. While I can see some people defending The Incrementalists for taking risks and thinking big, I don’t feel that the book did anything else terribly well.