In his latest standalone novel, The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson posits a revolution in social networking that will transform interpersonal relationships and influence social policy. Think Facebook in meatspace (without the sponsored posts and dog videos, one might hope).
The novum of The Affinities is governed by a simple system: after rigorous testing and teleodynamic analysis developed by the tech startup InterAlia, sixty percent of applicants to the novel’s central network are placed in one of twenty-two Affinities, cohorts of like-minded individuals which are each designated by a letter of the Phoenician alphabet; the other forty percent don’t pass muster and, in many cases, are socially ostracized because of their test results. Adam Fisk, a native of Schuyler, New York, and a graphic design student at Toronto’s Sheridan College, catches wind of the Affinities from an ad in the back of a local entertainment paper. Given his sketchy personal life of late—as the novel opens, he gets a beatdown from a cop when unwittingly involved in a street protest—he pays his money and takes his chances.
He’s identified as a Tau, one of the most active and successful of the social groups. Adam’s entry into the Tau Affinity is so seamless as to strike him—and readers—as too good to be true, but the algorithm that identifies and classifies Affinities seems to work as advertised, grouping applicants with extraordinary accuracy. Adam immediately feels more at ease in his new tranche (a subunit of 30 or so people within the larger Affinity) than he ever felt under a domineering father and brother back home.
In fact, Adam’s family is a world away both geographically and ideologically from his Tau Affinity. His longtime sort-of girlfriend, Jenny Symanski, waits patiently (and ultimately futilely) for Adam to return for her. When pressed by Jenny about his involvement in the Affinity, Adam considers what he would like to tell her about his newfound soulmates: “I know you think it’s bullshit. I know you think I bought a sales pitch, swallowed a line, joined a cult. You think I gave myself to the Tau the way people give themselves to Scientology or Mormonism or the Communist Party. But Tau isn’t like that” (p. 80). That vaguely lame—even to himself—rationalization is perhaps more telling of Adam’s personality than his having joined the Affinity. The two never in fact have the conversation; Adam’s new life is more ambiguous to his family than ever.
Which is not to say that he has any reason at all to spend time in Schuyler after the death of his beloved Grammy Fisk who, seeing Adam’s potential and the necessity for him to get gone from Schuyler, paid his way through Sheridan College. Adam’s father is an unrepentant bully and racist, a more mean-spirited version of Archie Bunker: “‘Why don’t you just take your Arab girlfriend and go back to wherever it is you call home?’” (p. 81), one typical ear-popping exchange between the man and Adam goes. He clearly favors the older brother, Aaron, an ambitious sycophant with a dark side who spends his life ingratiating himself to his father and unthinkingly absorbing his outmoded social views.
Adam only finds a degree of conviviality with his non-blood relations. His father’s stepson, Geddy (nope, not a reference to the frontman of Canadian rock legends Rush), will always be an outsider; no surprise that he and Adam, of all the family’s members, get along. His cowed stepmother, Mama Laura, is, meanwhile, a decent sort—save, perhaps, for her unquestionably poor judgment in having married Adam’s father—and finds her voice only in the book’s second half in one satisfying, cathartic harangue against her dying husband. The old man’s eventual demise is served with a piping-hot order of Schadenfreude. Somewhere, Leo Tolstoy grins and wishes like hell that the Fisks had been around as source material for Anna Karenina.
With his biological family put on hold, then, Adam and his tranchemates become instrumental in the goings-on of the national Tau Affinity. When Adam, his sometimes lover Amanda Mehta, and the group’s titular leader, Damian Levay, meet with the reclusive Meir Klein, who was key in developing the algorithms that made InterAlia and the Affinities possible, we learn that:
The Affinities had no official hierarchy, and under the rules laid down by InterAlia all tranches were created equal; the national sodalities existed solely to organize social events and maintain centralized websites and mailing lists. Like every other Affinity, Tau had no president, no board of directors, and no governing body apart from the policy wonks at InterAlia itself. (p. 96)
Damian conspires with Klein to wrest control of the Affinities and its proprietary algorithm away from InterAlia. With Klein’s suspicious death, what had been a clandestine, mostly cold, war between the various Affinities heats to the melting point. As the Middle East and Asia bubble over into unparalleled violence, the Affinities rush to fill the power vacuum. (Plus ça change . . .)
Throughout all this, Wilson is judicious with techsplanation, including ostensible articles and opinion pieces from newspapers and magazines at the beginning of each section that detail current events and the social impact of the Affinities, balancing the infodumps with Adam’s own evolving perspective on how he and the Affinities fit into this brave new world. Such descriptions in Wilson’s fiction frequently serve double duty. In addition to giving readers necessary background on his intriguing premise, passages like the one above turn ironic later for the naïve optimism—reverent, buoyant, utopian—that characterizes adherents’ attitudes toward the Affinities, as if humanity hasn’t learned the hard way that technology never comes without unintended consequences.
In this context, one of the book’s real strengths is Wilson’s development of Adam, who not only paces the plot as the story’s narrator, but offers readers an intimate look into the mind of a young man committed (inadvertently at first) to effecting change in his life through the use of technology. Even if descriptions of Adam’s unsatisfactory home life are heavy-handed—the chasm between his father and the open-minded Grammy Fisk is vast; we’re compelled to wonder how two such polar opposites ever lived under the same roof—that contrast emphasizes the brilliant promise of InterAlia’s technology and the discontents of its inevitable growing pains. The exuberance of the first few years in the tranches gives way to more actionable considerations as the Affinities realize they are poised to command the country’s—and the world’s—political, financial, and social resources, but only at the risk of becoming what they so vehemently despise. Battle lines, then, are drawn. For his part, Adam makes a fateful decision—not knowing if it represents heroism or betrayal—that will threaten his cherished status as a Tau.
Fans of Wilson’s fiction will recognize his trademark pacing and character development. He has an impeccable, confident command of a complex story as he slow walks readers through a scenario plausible for its instantly recognizable contexts, in this case the incremental erosion and replacement of the social contract. Wilson is never inattentive to character, and Adam Fisk is one of his most developed and, in the end, sympathetic protagonists, yearning to feel a part of something larger than himself while chafing at the loss of free will.
Indeed, Wilson’s output over three decades, including Darwinia, Mysterium, Blind Lake, Burning Paradise, and the Hugo Award-winning Spin and its follow-ups, Axis and Vortex, places him in the first rank of SF writers working today. Under-read by mainstream audiences—perhaps that lack of well-deserved recognition has something to do with his being Canadian (a plight shared to some extent by prolific and talented fellow traveler Robert J. Sawyer)—Wilson’s consistent output draws apt comparisons to the work of Golden Age giant Isaac Asimov (particularly, in this case, Foundation) and the oft-overlooked Clifford Simak (City, The Way Station), both of whom leveraged a strong humanist approach to the examination and extrapolation of new technologies.
There’s a sense in Wilson’s fiction that events of the utmost importance in the moment will merely pass into history and memory as surely as the simple, languid evenings Adam spends with his tranchemates in Toronto. In The Affinities, as in so many of the author’s previous books, the novel’s conclusion only gets us to the start line.
In fact, the big ideas in Wilson’s fiction almost always come from an ambivalence toward society’s increasing reliance on technology to define its humanity. The phoenix of Wilson’s thought experiment arises from the chaotic ash of what seemed in the moment to be the perfect solution and—as all ideas must—becomes subject to a messier reality, one that can never be quantified by an algorithm. The Affinities is a near-future vision seen through the lens of a master craftsman who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
Patrick A. Smith is an associate editor at Bookmarks Magazine and the author of "The true bones of my life": Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison, Tim O'Brien: A Critical Companion, and the edited collections Conversations with Tim O'Brien and Conversations with William Gibson, as well as interviews, articles, reviews, and fiction in Abyss & Apex, SF Site, and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Havana, Florida.