Novel: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Extrapolating social media trends to the next level, Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities (2015) is a science fiction novel that feels conjured straight out of the zeitgeist. In the very near future, the rise of a new discipline called teleodynamics changes the social fabric of the world by enabling people to test into one of twenty-two different “affinities,” which are essentially tribes. Adam Fisk is the black sheep of an ambitious, conservative family in upstate New York struggling to launch an art career in Toronto. When he tests into the Tau affinity, one of the largest, his aimless existence finds a new direction, landing him in a worldwide social circle of like-minded individuals with whom he feels an immediate kinship. Could the affinities help lost souls like Adam find their place in the world? That’s the hope, but of course there are complications. For one thing, the company that developed the testing, InterAlia, wants to keep control of it for their own corporate profits. There’s also resentment over the affinities by those who either can’t afford the tests, or do not fall into any of the categories. Finally, there’s Tau’s major rival affinity, Het, whose more authoritarian and hierarchical dynamic makes them a powerful and dangerous political force. Against these challenges, Adam and his Tau family must fight against their very nature, and many secret enemies, to serve as a collective force for the common good.

It’s impossible to discuss Wilson’s work without mentioning how compelling it is on the sheer storytelling level. The Affinities follows that trend, with sparkling prose that carries the reader effortlessly from one intriguing science fictional question to the next. But it’s also a little different for Wilson, foregoing his usual Big Idea, sense-of-wonder vibe for a more immediate futurism. The novel taps into the Internet-connected, social-media-driven world we now live in, smartly asking the next question on how that technology has brought us closer together—and driven us further apart. Thematically, it’s similar to his recent Burning Paradise, but more baldly political, in keeping with the subject matter. (Indeed, the Tau/Het power struggle has obvious liberal/conservative parallels; it’s clear where Wilson falls, so readers on the Republican end of the spectrum might find the politics a stumbling block.)

But this is highly relevant, juicy subject matter for a modern SF novel, and Wilson does the idea justice. The Affinities examines the importance of finding your kindred spirits, but also the downside of us-versus-them tribalism…all of the pros and cons of the current social media landscape, in other words, fleshed out into a broader science fictional context. The result is both a smooth, entertaining read and an insightful meditation of the pluses and pitfalls of the contemporary Internet landscape. Great science fiction.

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