The Incrementalists (see review, below) marks the first collaboration between Brust, the best-selling author of the Vlad Taltos series and other Hungarian-tinged fantasy novels, and newcomer White, whose two novels—And Falling, Fly and In Dreams Begin—are not easily pigeonholed but have elements of urban fantasy. Their book, however, is perhaps best described as an odd stepchild of magical realism, with hints of John Crowley, Tim Powers, and even a dash of Umberto Eco. Their protagonists, the Incrementalists, might best be described as kinder, gentler Illuminati who use words and subtler persuasion to make the world a better place. There is a sensuality about this story, as sights, sounds, tastes, and smells play an integral part in the Incrementalists’ work of “meddling.”
How do a Minnesotan and a Texan end up writing a novel together?
SB: Not that complicated: I lived in Texas for three years. We met at a convention, were on some panels together, met at another, were on more panels. We’re both process geeks, which means we can happily spend hours talking about writing and what works and how to do it better; eventually, one of those conversations turned into, “I know what let’s do!”
SW: Visits with whiskey and email without.
The Incrementalists often work to make small changes behind the scenes, but occasionally their work produces something that makes life better for society at large. Phil uses the MP3 format as an example of one thing that the Incrementalists have accomplished. In writing the book, did you come up with other examples that anyone would recognize?
SB: There are some, certainly (including a few failures), but no examples I’d like to give because the stuff we came up with are all things we might want to play with in future stories. I can tell you that the Incrementalists are very involved with current events and trying their best. Most people were very surprised when Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold Obamacare.
SW: We crowdsourced the MP3! It was a fascinating discussion on Steve’s blog. He posted looking for “technology that has been done right—barely” and got suggestions ranging from Teflon to debit cards to mechanical pencils. Some very, very smart people read his blog, and we’ve answered a number of both history and technology questions that way.
The novel concludes with a sharp rap on the fourth wall. Is that your way of defining this as a stand-alone novel, or are you imagining further escapades of the Incrementalists to come?
SB: Both, in fact. There are already two or three Incrementalist short stories either finished or in progress, and we’re at work on the next novel. And the whole project continues to be almost more fun than I can stand. But to me, the main point of that “rap on the fourth wall” (I like that, nice one!) is about how the stories we read affect us, “meddle” with us, if you will, and help us understand the world. That is, I’d like to believe it’s more than just the authors winking at the reader. The reader is very much a part of the process, and we mean that in an extremely practical, makes-a-difference sort of way. Collaboration—writer with writer, character with character, writer with reader, reader with character—is at the heart of the story and is one of the main things we were having fun exploring and playing with.
SW: “Rap on the fourth wall”—that’s a lovely way to put it! It’s meant to be a knock and a wave and a “come play!” We need a volunteer from the audience for our next trick.
Brust, Steven & Skyler White. The Incrementalists. Tor. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780765334220. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466809314. FANTASY
Brust (Tiassa) and White (In Dreams Begin) craft an engaging speculative fiction novel that is as much magical realism as urban fantasy. The Incrementalists are quasi-immortals who work behind the scenes, not to control the world but simply to make it better. They store information in a shared metaphorical construct called “the Garden,” somewhat akin to a memory palace in which hundreds can partake. In order to ensure their continuation, they pass along memories from members who have died to new recruits. Phil has guided Ren through the ritual to accept the memories of Celeste, but, in an unprecedented move, Celeste has altered the process and hidden herself from Ren. Phil must summon other senior Incrementalists so that, together, they can search the Garden for Celeste and, if need be, counter whatever plans she has made. A gunshot rings out, someone is poisoned, and two people fall in love in the real world (i.e., Las Vegas) while much of the rest of the “action” takes place in metaphor. VERDICT Although there is no hint of the Hungarian folklore that plays a role in Brust’s popular series about the assassin Vlad Taltos, the novel has many other qualities that will satisfy Brust’s fans. Unusual but beautifully written and satisfying. [Previewed in Kristi Chadwick’s Genre Spotlight feature, “New Worlds To Explore,” LJ 8/13—Ed.]