The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson
Tor Books, 2015; 300 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
In contrast to his previous work, Robert Charles Wilson’s latest offering of speculative fiction is something other than dystopian. That is to say he doesn’t spend much time in The Affinities speculating about humanity’s downfall. Wilson deals instead with existential threats that are contemporary and require little imagination (such as climate change, resource scarcity, political instability, war, and economic inequality) so that he can focus the bulk of his skill on toying with the concepts of civic and personal allegiance that we have probably come to take for granted.
Into the near future, Wilson has placed Meir Klein, an Israeli-born researcher who has developed a method of drilling down into any individual’s brain chemistry and DNA in order to determine their place in the socionome, a term he coined to describe the “map of characteristic human interactions” that determines interpersonal compatibility. Specifically, Klein has identified 22 major Affinity groups and, while working for a shadowy corporation called InterAlia, he has begun to offer tests to the public so that members of each group can find each other.
Although Affinity groups are literally social networks, that term will probably mislead most readers into forming an association with platforms like Facebook or Linkedin. Affinities are less superficial and electronic, more fraternal and cooperative. This distinction is important, because the novel turns on much more than the invention of a new way for humanity to indulge in cliquishness. As the intake officer tells protagonist Adam Fisk during his initial testing, InterAlia holds the somewhat religious belief that “everything’s connected.” From the moment Adam is introduced to the local tranche of his Tau Affinity group, he experiences something they refer to as “Tau telepathy.” Taus are practically able to read one another’s thoughts, which allows them to quickly anticipate one another’s needs. For Adam, being a Tau opens up “the possibility of being both truly known and genuinely loved” in a way that feels much less arbitrary and compulsory than his troubled familial relationships and fickle friendships.
Ultimately, what’s most interesting about these Affinity groups is not the deep and instant connection that members form, but the emergence of each group as a “post-national system of loyalty” that threatens to replace existing allegiances. As the intrigue of the novel unfolds, the Affinity groups become more and more conscious of their role in shaping human history. Wilson’s characters come to believe that the extraordinary effectiveness of intra-Affinity collaboration could thwart the various threats facing humanity. On the other hand, these new associations could merely supplant the old ones, leading to new versions of old tribal animosities and competition. The Affinities has a philosophical richness to it that is easy to appreciate.
Stylistically, Wilson shifts abruptly between moods and settings. Tender moments will last for a few paragraphs before cutting directly to an action sequence that seems made for a Hollywood screenplay. There’s a practical advantage to this, since it allows readers to advance through the story at a brisk pace. I was often disappointed, however, in how quickly interesting plot points were introduced and then resolved. As Part II opens, for example, seven years’ worth of action and intrigue is contained in just a few sentences of exposition sprinkled throughout a handful of pages. If every substantive plot point had been given its fair shake, The Affinities would easily have doubled in length. This may not have made it a better book but it certainly would have made some of Wilson’s transitions less jarring.
With that being said, part of this novel’s charm is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. A work of speculative fiction can sometimes be obsessed with its own intricacies and drown its readers in plot points. Wilson has instead chosen to express the breadth rather than depth of his imagination, leaving plenty of room for us to insert our own (and also room for a franchise, if he wants it).