The Big Idea: Steven Brust and Skyler White


Disclosure: I liked The Incrementalists, the new novel by Steven Brust and Skyler White, enough to blurb it (specifically, the blurb says “Secret societies, immortality, murder mysteries and Las Vegas all in one book? Shut up and take my money.”); it also received a coveted starred review from Booklist, which said “Call it genius at work.” Not bad praise. Here are the aforementioned geniuses, Brust and White, to give you a little long-term perspective on their latest.


If you’re a middle-class American with a conscience, it is easy to look around and say, “No one cares.” It certainly can seem that way. It might seem like you and your immediate circle of real-life and internet friends are the only ones who notice there’s a problem. The very idea of alleviating systematic oppression–much less solving it–might appear to you like a pipe dream. Perhaps you find yourself cursing the greater portion of humanity, calling them stupid, decrying their apathy.

But try taking the long view: Over the course of human history in general, and US history in particular, the trend has been for more equality, more justice. We have built up productive forces to the point where there is no need for anyone to be hungry, or homeless, or without health care. Democracy and equality–though frighteningly threatened–are broadly considered natural rights. As a species, we are still in our infancy, yet we’ve made amazing progress. Progress is a thing. It can be very hard, and certainly there is backward movement at times. But there is no good reason to believe progress will stop.

And we’ve progressed by working together. Yeah, sometimes we screw things up. Sometimes, as we look at history, we wish we’d done better. Sometimes we wish there was someone trustworthy with a long enough view to tell us what “better” even means.

And maybe even someone who could do something about it.

The Incrementalists, a secret society of around 200 people has, since the beginning of human history, been working to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this stretches across nations, races, and time, but they’ve been messing (“meddling”) with people’s heads just as long. Able to draw from a collective experience of over forty thousand years, and skilled in triggering precise emotions in others, they pick pivotal moments to subtly nudge people to maybe do the right thing, or maybe refrain from doing quite as much of the wrong thing.

So, if they were real (and, you know, you can’t prove they aren’t), how are they doing so far? You could say they’re doing pretty well, given all the catastrophes our species has avoided, how much progress we’ve made, and how many terrible things might have been even worse. Or you could say they are utterly ineffective, given how screwed up so many things are. They key word in all of that is: You.

You get to decide. That’s the point, and that’s one of the things that made this project so much fun, because the big idea behind The Incrementalists is a question. It’s the “what if” question that got us writing, but it is also, if we’ve done our job well, a question we’ve seeded in the minds of the readers. Just how do you fit into all of this? How do you choose to engage with the book, with the imaginary world in which it takes place, with the real world that the imaginary world is drawn from?

The Incrementalists often gets singled out as a collaborative project because there are two authors; but every book is a collaborative project. Just as the characters in The Incrementalists cooperate despite annoyances and conflicts, and just as its authors cooperated despite occasionally differing visions and expectations, this book—every book—asks readers to cooperate in the story-telling process. Writers need readers to shape the worlds they sketch, see the characters they imagine, hear what they’ve written and intuit what they’ve suggested.

As has been said many times before by many people, there is no reason to expect what the reader sees to be what we see; indeed, there is no reason to expect what Skyler sees to be what Steve sees. They don’t have to be the same; they can’t be the same. What matters is that they can dance together. The writers, the editors, the art director and everyone in production, the voice actors for the audio book, the readers, and even the reviewers are part of the process that makes a book what it is.

But it goes well beyond fiction. Collaboration, cooperation to make things better, is at the heart of what we human monkeys do. At the end of this book we, as one interviewer put it, “rap on the fourth wall.” And we do that in several other subtler places as well to make the same point – that this story is a metaphor for stories, and that how you want to engage with the book, with the ideas behind it, with the overall concept, and with the characters, is up to you. And that however you engage with it, you’ll be collaborating with us. We’ll be here, on other side, listening in case anyone knocks back.


The Incrementalists: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Steven Brust’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit Skyler White’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

22 Comments on “The Big Idea: Steven Brust and Skyler White”

  1. I enjoy most of Brust’s writing and love trying on not-exactly-the-same formats so this seems like a win/win for me. Then there’s the added bonus of meeting a new author. I’m excited to get my hands on this one!

  2. Already finished my copy last night. Overall I enjoyed it immensely, and it was so different from anything else I’ve read it was also a breath of fresh air. Anyone who thinks the book sounds awesome should pick it up. So good.

  3. Anything written by Mrs. Walter White works for me.
    But seriously -> I like the concept here, and think it touches on the big divide between the feeling of “wow, only 50 years ago Jim Crow ruled the South, and now we’ve had a black president for long enough for it to feel almost normal.” and “50 years is 2.5 human generations; why SHOULD it take so long to do the right thing?”
    It’s on my interest list

  4. One interesting thing I heard about the book was how it was edited. Apparently the Nielsen Haydens got together in a room with the authors and edited it in one long 11 hour day. Apparently it was quite a positive experience for all of them.

  5. I’ve been seeing a lot of mentions of this book – they stick in my brain because my reflexive response is always: Breaking Bad! Spoilers! Look away! – and I hope that translates into a lot of sales, because it sounds really interesting.

  6. This is definitely the best speculative fiction novel I’ve read that had a recognizable King Crimson reference in the first 50 pages.

    And it’s probably one of the best speculative fiction novels I’ve read, period. It’s got what I call the John M. Ford vibe: “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but that’s a good thing because it means the authors are way smarter than me.”

  7. There are only 8 reviews so far on Amazon, so anyone who reads it this weekend can have an impact on the consensus about the book.

  8. Okay, we’ve had plenty of the Breaking Bad jokes, but what I’d really like to hear from the authors is what it feels like to have your name usurped by a semi-iconic character in popular culture. Also, was there any discussion among the authors and editors about the possibility of retitling the book “Breaking Good”? Even jokingly?

  9. A hundred years ago, when *I* was selling stuff on Ebay to supplement the family income while I stayed home with a new baby, I kept an online diary. If some TV writer somewhere was looking for a rough character sketch of a wife to assign to Walter…. who knows? What’s really been interesting is that my husband, who is nothing like Walter — thank god– keeps a google alert for my name to track writerly things. The level of truly misogynistic vitriol leveled against my namesake is really scary. But no, “Breaking Good,” never occurred to us, and I’m a little disappointed in us that it didn’t!

  10. Mr. Brust is on my fairly short “preorder in hardback without looking at the description” list. He’s never let me down before, and although I am as yet only halfway through _The Incrementalists_, I am confident that this will not be the book where he does. I think I’m going to need to read it a couple more times in order to more fully process what’s going on, but that’s not a criticism.

  11. I first became aware of Steven Brust here on Whatever. He seemed clever, so I decided to try one of his novels. I began with Jhereg which, while well written, turned out not to be to my liking. A little later I decided to give one of his stand-alone novels a try. To Reign in Hell was much more to my taste. As someone who, although a huge fan of the late great Iain Banks, felt Transitions wasn’t up to his usual muster despite a intriguing core idea, I’m looking forward to seeing how Brust and White tackle a similar theme. This book is going on my TBR list. Love the cover art too.

  12. Added to my heap oif gotta-reads. Thanks as always, Esteemed Host, for all the Big Ideas, as they’re one of my best places to fish for things I need to read, and thanks to the writers for taking the time to let me know there’s a cool idea here.

  13. Hmm. I’m a pretty big fan of Steven Brust. I love his Vlad books, and the Khaavren romance novels set in the same universe. He’s one of the few authors whose name alone might get me to make an impulse buy, without even really caring about the topic. If and when I finish the 3 books I’m in the midst of reading now, I may pick this one up.

  14. Read a short story on Tor newsletter about this universe written by these authors. yes bought it immediately.

  15. Steven Brust is already on my list of must-reads. His obvious delight in language and dialogue has the ability to make me giggle. I’m very interested to see how this collaboration works. Your write-up has pushed it up on my list – which is funny since it was your blurb on this book that brought me here. To be devoured shortly!

  16. Just finished it last night, really enjoyed it. I’m a fairly fast reader, and tend to ignore things like chapter headings, so the character / viewpoint changes threw me at first, but I got over that. Also, all through the book I was waiting for more detail on the origins of the incrementalists and “how they do it”. Didn’t find it, but at the end of the day, I think I got more for my money without it – My brain is now trying to come up with this stuff itself (instead of focussing on work stuff like it should be).

    I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more collaborations from these two authors.

  17. The setup of this story sounds very much like Isaac Asimov’s “End of Eternity” and since I enjoyed that book very much, I am going to look up this one.

%d bloggers like this: