Summary: In our rapidly changing world of social media, everyday people are more and more able to sort themselves into social groups based on finer and finer criteria. In the near future of Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities, this process is supercharged by new analytic technologies: genetic, brain-mapping, behavioral. To join one of the twenty-two Affinities is to change one’s life. It’s like family, and more than family. Your fellow members aren’t just like you, and they aren’t just people who are likely to like you. They’re also the people with whom you can best cooperate in all areas of life, creative, interpersonal, even financial.
At loose ends both professional and personal, young Adam Fisk takes the suite of tests to see whether he qualifies for any of the Affinities and finds that he’s a match for one of the largest, the one called Tau. It’s utopian–at first. His problems resolve themselves as he becomes part of a global network of people dedicated to helping one another, to helping him, but as the differing Affinities put their new powers to the test, they begin to rapidly chip away at the power of governments, of global corporations, and of all the institutions of the old world; then, with dreadful inevitability, the different Affinities begin to go to war with one another.
Thoughts: On the surface, this sounds like it could well be a typical YA novel plot, scaled up for more adult audiences. Which still has a kind of appeal, admittedly, and even had it been that, I probably would have enjoyed it on some level anyway. You see a lot of things similar to Affinities in YA speculative fiction these days, after all. Whether they’re called factions, strengths, groups, what have you, there’s great appeal for youth in finding a place you fit in, where your strengths will be recognized, and ultimately, you’ll rise above limitations that people place upon you.
But that doesn’t stop at adulthood. Which, I think, is part of why a concept like The Affinities works, both as something to read and within the context of the book itself. Adam isn’t in the greatest place in life. He doesn’t fit in well with his family, being overshadowed by his brother and disinterested father, finishing a degree in graphic design that may or may not get him a job, feeling pressured to marry a girl he doesn’t particularly care for in that way. Almost as an act of desperation, he applies to be tested for an Affinity. Affinities are groups of people connected not so much by common identifiable traits, such as being stubborn, or intelligent, or really interested in animal welfare, but by something that goes deeper. The kind of thing that you feel when you meet a random person for the first time and you develop a connection, even though you may have opposing political views and different jobs and very few of the same interests. What forms a rapport has been identifies, categorized, and those people directed together into medium-sized social groups.
Affinities tend to stick to their own. After having found a group of people who will accept you as you are, help you without question, love you just because you’re one of them, would you really want to seek companionship outside that circle? Run the risk of not getting along, being incompatible, when there’d be 29 other members of your immediate group who can interact with you without those risks? It’s a seductive idea; who wouldn’t want to find that kind of social home? Sure, there’s the risk of being cliquish, but does that really matter when you have so many people you get along with, and you’re not really hurting anyone on the outside?
But as is human nature, the dream can only last for so long. Conflicts inevitably arise. People who can’t be tested or don’t fit into an Affinity feel shafted by the ways Affinities work, such as often only hiring people from inside their Affinity. Don’t belong to an Affinity, your chances of finding a good job in your field might go down. People like to belong, so being told they don’t belong makes them angry. Things get political, and Affinities get looked at as cults, as dangerous. Affinities start warring with each other, taking sides in power struggles.
What The Affinities is, in a nutshell, is a novel of social exploration, wrapped in a speculative shell. The benefits and drawbacks of certain social systems, a look at what happens when you define social clubs scientifically and ramp them up to eleven. It’s told entirely from Adam’s perspective, beginning from the man who feels like he has nowhere to go, through his connection with the Tau Affinity, and on through to the other side where it seems like the cycle may begin again. There’s some brilliant commentary along the way, especially when Adam gets confronted with how things work outside an Affinity, where “keeping it in the family” does do damage to those on the outside. It’s a story of privilege, of multi-generational and cross-cultural privilege that you can enter into by having the right personality type, by getting along well with a certain class of people.
And Wilson’s not shy about showing the positives and negatives of this privilege. In a time where privilege is practically a negative buzzword, everyone likes to have it and nobody likes to admit that them having it might have deprived somebody else of it. Adam loves the privilege and safety that belonging to an Affinity brings him. He’s taken care of. There are so many things he doesn’t have to worry about. He will always have a place to stay, people to help him find employment, a chance to feel meaningful. And he’s confronted with the unfairness of this in a powerful fashion when an ex-girlfriend of his overdoses on drugs and has to be hospitalized, resulting in her young daughter being put on a social services watchlist. She blames Adam for this, since he was the one to convince the kid to call 911, and accurately and undeniably points out that had she been a Tau like him, things would have played out differently. Her daughter would be living with another Tau while she recovered. A Tau doctor and rehab specialist likely would have taken care of her. Or maybe even helped her before it got to the point of her ODing in the first place. Social services never would have known, because better and more confidential help would be available to her, as a member of this tight-knit group.
The Affinities is a book that allows all this social- and privilege-checking to sink in, almost unnoticed, by the casual reader. To reshape the way we might look at an unfairly balanced world around us. The original concept behind Affinities, that they might be a way to transcend the current system of classes and race and culture in order to create a better world, is hopeful but largely naive, since what it accomplishes in the end is mostly to set another fence around another group. With all the best intentions, of course, but isn’t that always how it starts?
Wilson lets these concepts sink into your brain in a fantastically entertaining way, pulling you along for a ride that’s simultaneously appealing and frightening. It’s a great look at social structure and privilege, and for all that it’s being plugged in many SFF-related circles, the only thing science fictional about it is the developed technology to determine your potential Affinity. The rest is pure human-driven fiction, set a little way into the future, just enough to give a backdrop to that technology that hasn’t yet been invented. It’s literary sci-fi, social sci-fi, something that can very easily cross genre boundaries and appeal to readers of more contemporary fiction. It’s a great read, not always comfortable but often insightful.