Robert Charles Wilson is at it again. The award-winning author of The Chronoliths and Spin turns his gaze toward the darker side of social media in The Affinities, skirting the edge of science fiction with a near-future tale of loyalty, acceptance, perspective, and internal societal struggles. Taking the concept of self-selecting social groups to an unsettling extreme, he shines a light on how we separate and govern ourselves, serving up a stiff reminder that no matter how smooth we think things are going, trouble is always lounging in a lawn chair around the next corner.
The big SFnal idea here is a scientific breakthrough that allows for the creation of detailed map of our brains’ behavioral patterns, revealing how they structure our personalities. All you have to do is head to InterAlia, look at a few pictures, answer a few questions, and bam, you’ve been placed in one of the 22 Affinity groups. Almost everyone on the planet can belong to an Affinity, making them something like social clubs for your deep behavioral self.
Adam Fisk never really fit in, not even with his own family, so he jumps at the chance to find his Affinity. Turns out he’s a Tau, one of the five biggest groups. He instantly connects with his fellow members at the welcome party, making friends with just about everyone he bumps into (even the guy who rambles on about self-determination and Affinity-driven revolutions doesn’t seem so weird). Adam settles into his Tau-centric life and things start to click for him for the first time in years. Meanwhile, the world at large is still figuring out how to deal with Affinities, and the groups themselves are starting to make very public waves. Before long, Adam is entangled in serious Tau drama, forcing him to question the foundation and ultimate purpose of the Affinities.
The Affinities falls on the lighter side of the science fiction spectrum, tossing out most of the geeky world building in favor of a plots that turns on the actions of individuals. It’s a fitting saddle to throw on this pony, as the crux of the thing is the complexity of human cooperation on a personal level. Our species works together like no other on Earth. Ants and bees get stuff done, but humans have evolved to the point where we require cooperation in our daily lives. (If you don’t believe me, try growing all of your own food or building a car from scratch. Not even Wikipedia can save you now!)
As is the case with most of Wilson’s writing, this one never tangles in its own philosophy. The story clips along at a tidy pace, stopping only to check in on Adam and his family to push the plot forward. As a result, it’s is a light, fast (but not insubstantial) read with heavy crossover appeal (think Dave Eggars’ The Circle). There’s a lot to this world that exists under the surface; the science fiction fan in me wanted all the juicy details about how the 22 Affinity groups handle their affairs. Is it a Star Trek situation, Klingons butting heads with Romulans? Do some Affinities sit around making taffy all day? A few details are peppered here and there, but Wilson keeps his focus on his characters, allowing only glimpses of the larger world he’s constructed.
We’re left with plenty to mull over, chief among them whether this is a dystopian society, or a utopia. People who belong to an Affinity seem content enough, though the minute they bump into a rival group, it’s like they don’t know how to compose themselves. Not everyone is a member of an Affinity, either, so the X element is out there, a wave ready to crash against the shore at any moment. Are Affinities the way forward, or did mankind rearrange thousand year old prejudices, creating a brand new excuse for war? That one will keep me awake at night.