The Incrementalists

Incrementalists cover

What can I say about this one? I love it, I’m proud of it, I’m kind of nuts about it. Almost certainly too much, but them’s the breaks.


Discussion Page

52 thoughts on “The Incrementalists”

  1. Steve, I got my copy of the audiobook today, and am halfway through it. I don’t know if it got proofed, but you are the only author that is announced in the recording; Skyler is not mentioned. It lists both of you on the button for the download, but she is missing from the actual recording.

    I like what I hear so far, other than that.

  2. Yeah, they told us they’d fixed that. Also, there’s a place where Phil says, “That he’s a winner,” where it is supposed to be, “That he’s a whiner.” We’re working on those.

  3. I’m a third of the way in and I think you and Skyler have managed to write a Mike Ford book. Can’t wait for the workday to end so I can get back to it.

  4. Not a book spoiler (as far as I know), but was the Meddlework convincing Branch Rickey to re-integrate MLB or getting him to choose Jackie Robinson?

  5. Dave Cooper: Fixed now–both the credits and the problem winner/whiner problem.If it’s worth re-downloading, you should have good versions.

  6. Firstly, I love the book Steve! And hearing you read it out on the patio at 4th Street was amazing.

    @Corwin @Dennis I would like to know where to go to discuss things like that. Ashamed to say it, but I had to have my dad explain some of the low-hanging fruit that I noticed were references but didn’t understand, and I’m sure there is soooooo much more I missed. Sometimes it sucks to be 19, with little knowledge of the things in the world that truly matter. Like, you know, the easter eggs/references made in a book.


  7. I got a number of big smiles from the Easter Eggs I noticed. And I have no doubt that I caught about one-tenth of them.

    Also, having finished, I can say that it is a Mike Ford book. Not as Mike Ford as THE SCHOLARS OF NIGHT, but still Mike Ford.

  8. Were I the book-reviewing kind, I might write something like this:

    “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign …” — Five Man Electrical Band

    The Incrementalists may not have five coauthors – just two, Steven Brust and Skyler White, but it is a semiotic adventure. The protagonists are part of a secret society that has existed throughout human history trying to make the world a better place through subtle manipulation.

    Secret societies usually come in pairs, whether it be The Illuminatus! Trilogy’s Order vs Chaos (Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson) or The Da Vinci Code’s Freemasonry vs Opus Dei (Dan Brown). The Incrementalists doesn’t rely on the typical duality of good versus evil. Instead it is a call to let our humanity overrule our more basic natures. While not a polemic, The Incrementalists is colored throughout with a progressive, liberal, socialist worldview. It is this world view, to individually and collectively make the world a better place, that drives the protagonists and serves as the novel’s final twist.

    I am not familiar with the previous work of Skyler White, but I have long been a fan of Steven Brust. Those familiar with Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels will often recognize his narrative voice in the words of Phil,one of the two main characters. Phil supports himself playing poker, specifically Texas Hold ‘Em, in the casinos of Las Vegas. Brust also has a personal affection/obsession with poker and with two main characters, one male and one female, and with the story told from their alternating points of view, it’s easy to tie the male coauthor to the main male character and the female coauthor to the female main character. While it’s easy to make this inference, I would be surprised if that’s really how simple the collaboration worked.

    Regardless the mechanics of collaboration, The Incrementalists is seamless and fast-paced. It’s a page-turner that keeps you interested and is difficult to put down. An interesting story, well-crafted, with a steady, but light, call to all to become practical utopians.

    One of my favorite John Reed quotes came to mind a couple of times, “All I know is that my happiness is built on the misery of others, so that I eat because others go hungry, that I am clothed when other people go almost naked through the frozen cities in winter; and that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play..”

    Google Reader was a bit jarring … as was Sony. I guess I’m not a fan of using brand names.

    Somewhere I should have mentioned recursion and/or self-references.

  9. Interesting. I hadn’t assigned a gender to Skyler, but did note that Ren (short for Rene?), had sexy thoughts about men in a way that is rare in books I read. So the writing is almost epistolary. How about the background? I have fantasies about things that could make the world better in the long run – did this start off that way?

  10. Questions I am left with:

    Why are there 204 Incrementalists, and not any more or less? We know that they can, in some sense, decrease their numbers by deciding to leave a stub dormant for a time — do they ever do that permanent-like? Do they have any way to create more stubs? It seems that they don’t, although maybe Celeste figured one out?

    What is the physical mechanism of The Garden? Many characters described it as a metaphor, but it clearly was something that had independent existence outside of their individual brains. I don’t believe that ~200 brains could, even collectively, hold that much data. Is it somehow distributed among all of humanity’s brains? Or is it something entirely else? Either way, is The Garden something that evolved ‘naturally’, or was it created by some pre-existing sentient?

    Is Celeste really the first person to try and answer these questions and hack the system? On the one hand, it’s been hundreds of years since the scientific method appeared; on the other, the Is are a small group…

    I don’t expect direct answers to any of these (though of course I wouldn’t mind!), but these issues might perhaps be addressed in future installments.

  11. Alexx: Of course, I couldn’t say why 204. I have some theories. That is significantly (like, four times) the size of a usual tribe, based on our current understanding. So, I have to guess that the size is either, somehow, an effect of the creation of the Garden, or the cause of it. I’m convinced it is somehow related. (I doubt that 204, as opposed to say, 203, or 205, has any significance).

    My guess is, yes, it somehow distributed collectively among humanity’s brains. It could also have an independent, physical existence, but if so, well, no one’s found it, or any clues to its location.

    Celeste is, according to my sources, the first person in the last 6000 years. The small size of the group and vetting process does a good job of keeping people like her out. Usually.

  12. skzb – It’s been a long time since I read Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’ Did you borrow anything from him or make any oblique references to him?

  13. Yes, actually. Proust has had a huge influence on my interests in memory and time. I considered making madeleines one of Ren’s sense triggers, just as a little wink, but in the end, it felt forced. But there’s some pretty convincing research linking scent to memory more than any other of the other senses.

  14. Thanks, Skye. Yes, Proustian memory, or olfactory memory, is pretty much established fact today. I assumed Proust had some influence – just wasn’t sure if I’d missed a wink in his direction or not . Madeleines I would have caught; anything more subtle might have slipped by.

  15. I wish I could read more than 20 pages or so of Swann’s Way at a time. It’s not that I find anything wrong with it; it’s just that the language is so exquisite (even in translation), and the thoughts expressed so variously profound, subtle, or delicately nuanced, that I just get bogged down considering and reconsidering the sentences and never actually read through it the way I do with other writers. I suppose I could read it deliberately with a skimming or even a paraphrasing sort of mentality, but what would be the point? Extracting a synopsis from it would be like playing every hundredth note from Bach’s Chaconne in the interest of expediency. Sometimes I just reread the first page and stop.

  16. This is a reaction after my first read. I generally enjoyed The Incrementalists, but I felt that more discussion of certain topics would’ve made the world more consistent/real.

    For instance:

    The book only describes one method of inhabiting another person’s physical body. (Stop that, you know what I’m talking about.) I must therefore assume that Irina was spiked – a ‘willing accomplice’ was the quote, I believe. Killing Ren to be free of Celeste makes no sense under this assumption, however. Therefore, either Celeste inhabited Irina via some other means not described in the book, or her motives in that instance were not guessed.

    The issue of inhabiting multiple bodies is not clearly dealt with – at best, we might find that Celeste does not occupy both Ren and Irana, while they are both outside of the Garden, at the same time. This might be by choice, though.

    The process of sneaking into someone’s Garden, as described in the book, seems woefully simple; to the point that it’s hard to believe that it’s not universally known. To oversimplify, it seems to be a matter of grocking someone else’s point of view. It also seemed strange to me that grazing while trespassing would give one the intense first person perspective of living a memory, yet grazing someone’s garden with their aid (‘let us touch heads, so I can impart my viewpoint directly to you’) results in a lesser, fact-based experience. It would seem that grazing with help from the other person would give a more complete comprehension of their viewpoint, and thus better facilitate first-person memories.

    The Garden rules were a bit unclear as well:
    1) You cannot trespass in my Garden (unless you can)
    2) But feel free to check out the briar wood pipe on my side table in the den for a list of ScarJo’s turn-ons.
    3) Haha but of course from your viewpoint it doesn’t look anything like a pipe, or a table, or a den; just think about it and you’ll get my meaning eventually
    4) But don’t think about it too hard or you’ll learn how to trespass
    5) Also, please don’t create many copies of yourself and hide them by defining them on the why axis so your consciousness can never die

    When the alpha lock is first discovered, Ray observes that ‘There might be dozens [of Celeste’s stubs]; one for each life as long as she’s been doing this.’ At the conclusion of the book, Ren makes a copy of her own stub (and she’s been a crippled Incrementalist for all of like, 4 days?). There is a LOT of unexplored and unexplained territory here, the very least of which is the potential assimilation of the entire human race by one consciousness.

    Trying to guess what form Celeste’s mindfucks would take or who else might have already been taken over (or simply meddled with) by Celeste seemed pointless with the gaps in my understanding of the world mechanics, so I didn’t feel much anticipation to find out what happened next. ‘I accept that this is what happens, despite not really understanding why or why that didn’t happen instead.’

    Maybe it’s just me being dumb. On to the second read.

  17. A random thought as to something that might be going on with the way the Garden operates, and in particular it holding surprises for Phil, the nominal expert: if the Garden, as seems likely, is housed in distributed fashion across the brains of humanity, those brains presently have infinitely more communications connectivity (outside whatever subtle connection the Garden represents) than throughout most of history. Quantitative changes in communications technology may have lately brought about qualitative changes in the Garden’s capabilities.

  18. Well, after the second read through, it’s clear that I was tired during the first one. My comment on POV when visiting vs. trespassing was completely wrong, so that makes sense now. Also, Irina was described as an ‘unwilling accomplice’ instead of a willing one, so there’s that, too.

    I still think that trespassing in other’s Gardens is too easy not to be common knowledge.

    I smirk as Ray describes the previous two alpha locks, as if he has any certainty whatsoever that there haven’t been (or are not currently) any others.

    I’m still scratching my head with regard to two questions: 1) If stubs can be duplicated, can each duplicate stub be spiked into a Second? 2) Is spiking the only way to get inside/take over someone?

    On Irina/Celeste. It seems that I’m supposed to take Phil’s plot summary at face value: Irina was an unwilling accomplice to Celeste and tried to kill Ren in order to get rid of Celeste. I’m trying to figure out how killing Ren (and moving Celeste’s Primary to a new Second) would free Irina of Celeste, using the tools described in the book.

    1) The way Celeste gets into Irina’s head is via a spike. So either Irina spiked herself (which doesn’t follow the description of the ritual), or someone else took part in the ritual (possibly another Celeste?).

    2) The Irina and (alt)Celeste Primaries are now merged. Celeste effectively exists in both Ren and Irina at the same time, as well as in the Garden via other hidden (alt)stubs.

    3) Celeste agrees to let Irina overpower (alt)Celeste once Ren is stubbed. (Assuming (alt)Celeste is willing to do this.)

    4) Now, Irina has a reason to stub Ren to be free of Celeste, as Phil speculates.

    This line of thinking indicates that Celeste’s stubs can be freely spread around, and might integrate with amnemones and other incrementalists alike, leading to problems.

    Alternatively, Celeste inhabits Irina through some other mechanism, regardless of Irina’s unwillingness, which also leads to problems. If ‘accomplice’ implies that Irina submitted to Celeste’s intrusion as the only way to keep Oskar out of Salt, maybe that makes it ok?

    The two plots summaries that are given over the course of the book were very stark on the second read. It’s like they’re tethers to help the reader ford a current of undefined principles and arrive at the conclusion that furthers the plot.

  19. Enjoyed very much, except for references to “nemone(s)” and “amnemone(s)” – who/what are they? Couldn’t figure out from contexts, and dictionaries are no help.

  20. AnnieB, they’re “the ones who forget”. They are what the Incrementalists call the rest of humanity. ‘Nemone’ appears to be a shortened version of ‘Amnemone’. The term is based on an Ancient Greek translation, which was suggested on this blog iirc.

  21. Thanks! Google search for “amnemone” produced nothing, as did searches of various online dictionaries. Silly me! Most authors slip in definitions of obsure or made-up words.

  22. I realized this morning that many, if not all, of Steven’s books utilize some quirk surrounding memory as a tool to drive plot. Now maybe I am being Master of the Obvious here… but it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why. I assume memory idiosyncrasies are useful to do plot things, but presumably so are other vehicles.

    Why memory?

    There’s Vlad’s memory (predominantly in Dragon, but also in Dzur iirc). It’s also raised in Agyar, I vaguely recall something in Cowboy Feng’s as well and, though I am only just getting started in Incrementalists, it seems to figure prominently here as well.

  23. Alexx Kay: There are 204 Incrementalists because that’s twice 102. Which is the number of artworks named as the chapter-segment headers in Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. (For more about those segment-heading artwork titles, see the 9 November 2013 comment on that book’s discussion page.) As noted back in the Jhegaala – Spoilers and Iorich – Spoilers threads, Brust distributed a set of looking-outside-the-book references to The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars in Taltos, Phoenix, Athyra, and a fourth source that wasn’t publicly identified. He then built a twenty-years-after reference-set sequel into Jhegaala, Iorich, Tiassa…

    And now The Incrementalists. Double the number of artworks because this book concludes the “doubling” of the reference set.

    You should be finding a pattern of references to Roger Zelazny’s works and to something else by Brust in addition to The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. Also, since Jhegaala and Iorich—presumably Tiassa as well—each featured a separate game along with the tie-in to The Sun &c, expect a similar surprise in The Incrementalists. In fact, readers very likely got an early heads-up in a 29 May 2012 Words Words Words post titled Calling All Incrementalists. Don’t bother searching the archives—that post (together with another telltale Incrementalists-related post from 6 December 2012) is now the stuff of *extra*-secret history.

    I felt I owed everyone out there—and one of you in particular—that much of a parting gift. Others will have to take up the quest from here.

  24. So… Am about to purchase it on the Kindle for holiday reading, this being the only one of your books (I think) that I have not read. Unless Hawk is out, which I don’t think it is… I read the blurb. Do I detect an homage to Bester’s The Computer Connection ( Just curious, as the whole society of immortals working in the background made me think back to Bester’s 3rd novel… Keep on writing!

  25. No, I haven’t read that one. On the other hand, I’ve very likely read things that were influenced by it, so it’s possible there’s an indirect influence. I hope you like it.

  26. Well! Obviously I’m not the only one with some of these thoughts. And obviously I should start paying attention here, for some value of “should”. As for “can”, that’s a whole different should of worms.

    @Nicepants42: Thanks for the explanation of “nemone”. “Amnemone” was pretty obvious to me, as a language geek and scholar: “a-” (=without) + “mnemon-” (=memory). But “nemone” just looked like a misspelling of “mnemone”, which would be the counterpart, an Incrementalist… and it wasn’t. So I kept wondering what that was about. Now I know. :-)

    @the 204: I believe, Madame, that we have corresponded. :-)

    As long as I’m here:

    p.107, par.6: Finish → Finnish.
    (Oskar is making a very good point here. ISTR sending Steve this list, or most of it.)

    p.112,par.10,line 3: pixilated ⇢? pixelated
    This one’s … well, I guess is right, and I won’t call it a mistake. I can’t reproduce their boldface and italics here, though. For those, and the footnotes, see
    >>> QUOTE >>>
    Though pixelated is the standard spelling of the word meaning rendered with visible pixels, there’s a good reason that spell check does not catch pixilated. Pixilated is an old, seldom-used Americanism dating from the middle of the 19th century and peaking (in this use) in the middle 20th century. It meant (1) crazed, bewildered, or whimsical, or (2) intoxicated.1
    Pixilated derives from the noun pixie, denoting the mythical, mischievous creature.2 One who is pixilated is under the sway of a figurative pixie or behaving in a pixielike manner. The word’s exact origins are not known, but it might have been a fanciful coinage influenced by other -ated words such as elated and titillated. The phrasal adjective pixie-led (which is listed in the OED, with the earliest example being from 1659) might also be a source.3
    Whether anyone still uses pixilated this way is difficult to say. In historical Google News searches, most of the instances of pixilated used this way are from the 1930s and ’40s, with only a few scattered examples from after 1950. There are no easily found examples in recent sources, though there could be a few buried among the thousands of instances of pixilated used in place of pixelated.
    In any case, pixilated very often appears in place of pixelated in writing from the last couple of decades, and many dictionaries list it as a variant. So to call pixilated a misspelling of pixelated would be unfair, even if the spelling is not exactly logical (pixel having an e in the second syllable).
    <<< END QUOTE <<<

    p.168, ¶ 4: say 161 ACE, as they count the years now
    No they don't. People who would rather not number years as "Before Christ" (BC) and "in the Year of the Lord" (AD, Anno Domini) use, instead, "Before the Common Era" (BCE) and "Common Era" (CE). "After the Common Era" makes no sense, till we move into a Third Age or some such. — I haven't seen this one before, or I'd call it a Common Error.

    p.179, ¶ 3 from the bottom: It all felt too Disney-spooky, with the dust-mote sunbeams streaming in from high, opaque windows to risk flaunting the horror movie rules.
    flaunting → flouting To flaunt is to exhibit or parade (something) in an ostentatious manner. To flout is (1) to show contempt for or to scorn, or (2) to contemptuously ignore (especially rules or conventions).

    p.207, ¶ 2 from bottom: "en garde", in italics, or "on guard", in regular (roman) type, but not any type of "en guard".

    p.300, ¶ 9: He pulled the box out and set in on the counter
    in → it

    All best regards,
    Mark A. Mandel
    aka Dr. Whom: Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

  27. WTF, this one wonders. I’m sure I posted some comments a couple hours ago, including some typos.

    And I have just started my first REread of The Incrementalists, and discovered that, like much of Steve’s work and Zelazny’s too, huge amounts of stuff show up that you’d missed before and I don’t mean just terminology like “amnemone”. Steve, you bastard, I’m on p.74 and I’ve just seen Irina yell _”Cartophilus”_ at Phil. And now I realize that a) it’s his name from a previous Second and b) it means “card-lover”, which c) of course Phil is, and for that matter d) “Phil” could just as easily be short for “Cartophilus” as for “Philip” although e) how the hell would that have happened, and f) I’m pretty sure the Romans didn’t have playing cards (though a Greco-Latin name could be medieval or Renaissance too), but it could just as well mean “map-lover” instead and somewhere in there is where I threw the book onto the bed and shouted apostrophically “Steve, you bastard!” while grinning like a fool.

    Oh, and I also realized this time through why the term “alpha-lock”: Alpha is Ramon’s term for the “Why” axis. “If the Why becomes known, one of the others becomes undefined.”

  28. Mark: 1) Yes, you gave me that list of languages Oskar uses, hence your name in the acknowledgments. 2) A quick google on “Cartophilus” ought to answer some of those questions.

  29. Certainly “after the common era” doesn’t make sense. But neither does 12:00 PM or 12:00 AM, and those are in widespread use. (Not to mention trying to determine which date midnight falls in)

  30. I started this book this morning and I am enjoying it so far. I’m on page 68 and I see what you did there. Being from Pittsburgh, I don’t need a dictionary to explain redd up. Great work.

  31. @howardbrazee: True enough. But “ACE” isn’t in widespread use at all. And unlike midnight (aka 00:00 hours today, aka 24:00 hours yesterday), there is no “Year 0” in Western non-technical chronology. (Wikipedia, “Year 0”.) The last day of 1 B.C./B.C.E. was immediately followed by the first day of 1 A.D./C.E., although no one used those terms then.

    @Steve Halter: Well, fer cryin’ out loud, it certainly does. I was going just on language geekery. Thanks!

    skzb: You cunning bastard. ;-) Thanks as always!

  32. I heard some kind of rumor about a new novel or something? I dunno, maybe it deserves a mention….

  33. Steve, this book was fantastic. I just barely finished it and then picked up “The Skill of Our Hands” and read that. I could not put them down. I know I’m fanboying, but these novels hooked me–more than I’ve been in a long time. You and Skyler made me stand up and listen. Thank you! I hope to see more from these characters in the future.

  34. Just finished Playing God, and I am dumbstruck. Your work woven into Roger’s world, well I never would have imagined it but it just worked brilliantly. Bravo, Steven. You blew me away. Again. Still good, still smart, and still surprising me.
    Anyone who loves the Incrementalists world would do well to hunt it down. It is in a collection of stories, Shadows & Reflections.

  35. Thank you kindly; I’ve hardly heard anything about that story, so hearing someone liked it is especially nice.

  36. I’ve loved many of your other books, but The Incrementalists doesn’t appear to be available on kindle at the moment, the edition is not even listed on Is this likely to change? Is there anywhere else to buy it digitally?

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