Cheeky novel changes his­tory one med­dle at a time

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by David Jón Fuller

CON­TROL­LING the des­tiny of hu­man­ity has never been so low-key. In this witty, some­times cheeky spec­u­la­tive-fic­tion novel, the 40,000-yearold se­cret so­ci­ety guid­ing hu­man civ­i­liza­tion just wants to im­prove the world, in­cre­men­tally. Old hand In­cre­men­tal­ist Phil, who’s been do­ing it for cen­turies, makes his pitch to prospec­tive mem­ber Ren while she’s in Las Ve­gas on busi­ness. (It turns out Phil and his col­leagues have nudged cir­cum­stances to have her cross paths with him.) So­ci­ety mem­bers’ mem­o­ries stretch back for cen­turies, and they’re blunt about what they’re do­ing — they ma­nip­u­late peo­ple by plant­ing sub­con­scious trig­gers. Pick the right peo­ple to in­flu­ence and hu­man his­tory piv­ots the way the In­cre­men­tal­ists want. They don’t pre­tend it’s any­thing other than “med­dling.” They ca­su­ally dis­cuss how their ef­forts turned out in 2000 in Florida, or with the birth of Fox News. The novel, al­ter­nately nar­rated in the first per­son by Phil and Ren, is full of dry wit and self-dep­re­ca­tion. Phil is can­did as he med­dles with Ren (by hav­ing food brought to their ta­ble that reminds her of her grand­mother tak­ing care of her as a child). “I’m here to re­cruit you to a very se­lect and spe­cial group,” he says. “The work is al­most never dan­ger­ous, and best of all, we don’t pay any­thing.” Ren proves her­self an ideal can­di­date when she rec­og­nizes what Phil is do­ing. “You’re trig­ger­ing mem­o­ries to make me feel more trust­ing,” she says. Rather faster than Phil ex­pects, Ren jumps at the chance to join his group, even when she learns it means ab­sorb­ing the cen­turies’ worth of mem­o­ries of a re­cently de­ceased mem­ber, Ce­leste, whose per­son­al­ity may well over­power her own. The novel was writ­ten in tan­dem by U.S. sci-fi au­thors Steven Brust and Skyler White, with Brust writ­ing Phil’s sec­tions and White Ren’s. The dual-nar­ra­tive struc­ture is one Brust pulled off in Orca, one of his many Vlad Tal­tos nov­els. And the con­ceit of a per­son’s mem­o­ries in­trud­ing on another mind was some­thing White em­ployed in her novel In Dreams Be­gin. Of course, some­thing goes wrong. Ren can’t re­mem­ber any­thing of Ce­leste’s life, though Ce­leste at times takes over and speaks through Ren. Does this mean she has ab­sorbed Ce­leste? Or that Ce­leste is some­where at large in “the Gar­den” — the col­lec­tive un­con­scious of hu­man­ity, where the In­cre­men­tal­ists store their mil­len­nia of mem­o­ries? It gets even more com­pli­cated, since Phil has had a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with Ce­leste for cen­turies, and he and Ren be­gin fall­ing in love. But, Ren won­ders, is she in love be­cause he’s med­dling with her? Mean­while, Phil is afraid he only feels at­tracted to Ren be­cause she is, in some part, Ce­leste. “Lov­ing some­one arms that per­son against you,” Phil tells Ren. “I loved Ce­leste for life­times; she had a lot of time to pick up ammo.” The other In­cre­men­tal­ists soon get in­volved, chas­ing clues in the real world and the un­con­scious one in a wild goose chase in­volv­ing mur­der, me­di­a­tions on many life­times of bit­ter­ness, and the ques­tion of what would re­ally make things “bet­ter” for hu­man­ity. And for all that hu­man­ity is pre­sented as be­ing at a pivot point, right now, the real story of the novel fo­cuses on Ren and Phil and whether Ce­leste — or her mem­o­ries — will de­stroy them. It’s a re­fresh­ing, snappy take on the hoary “con­spir­acy con­trols hu­man­ity” trope, and is great fun to read. David Jón Fuller is a Winnipeg writer and ed­i­tor.

The In­cre­men­tal­ists By Steven Brust and Skyler White Tor, 304 pages, $29

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