Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cheeky novel changes history one meddle at a time

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Controlling the destiny of humanity has never been so low-key.

In this witty, sometimes cheeky speculative-fiction novel, the 40,000-year-old 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 Jòn Fuller is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A1

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