Robert Charles Wilson’s 2015 offering is more social science fiction, a blend of creeping near-dystopia, spy/crime thriller, and unnervingly plausible look at the next decade. It also may be the best among those SF novels overlooked by both the Hugos and Nebulas.
Title: The Affinities
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
First published April 21, 2015.
In the near future, sophisticated social teleodynamics1 allow people to, if they so choose, join one of multiple “Affinities”—social groups of people who think like them. The protagonist, largely estranged from his family, initially finds the welcome and the joy of this neo-tribalism exhilarating. Over time, however, the existence of Affinities has implications for society, both for those commited to their Affinity and those who choose not to join, cannot afford to be tested, or don’t fall into any identifiable Affinity type.
And while the Affinities show great potential as cooperatives, tribal and traditional conflicts loom.
The more time we spend on social media, the less we invest in our local, physical community and traditional institutions. The more skilled people leave a community, the more it flounders, as traditional support systems fail.
We tend to feel dislocated by contemporary society. We all want to find a place where we belong. But the initial exhilaration of any relationship or social community gives way external realities, many of them created by the relationship or community. Wilson’s work has particular appeal in an age of social networks and online tribalism, but The Affinities asks timeless questions.
Yet for all these weighty ideas and social implications— and the second half’s highly entertaining thriller elements– the story remains a human one to which most readers will relate.
Wars can be won and lost on bad decisions, and even clever strategists make mistakes. I nevertheless wonder about a certain decision made by the Tau characters in the book’s final third. They know how Affinities work at the ground level, and they know their communications can easily be monitored. They behave with remarkable carelessness, given the intelligence they demonstrate elsewhere in the book.
Originality: 2/6 The premise may recall Divergent, but Wilson goes in a very different direction, and the results are a mature work far removed from the easy categories of the YA.
Story: 5/6 Wilson has written an interesting, often suspenseful story that comments on ongoing social concerns that seem particularly relevant now. Some readers will find the introduction a little slow and the conclusion, a little rushed.
Characterization: 6/6 The progatonist, Adam, has been developed enough to be credible, but not so much that a wide range of readers couldn’t imagine themselves as him. He’s Everyman, slanted towards the sort of people likely to be reading this novel. Wilson’s real brilliance lies in the depictions of social interactions on various scales.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Editing: 5/6 Wilson’s work always runs exposition-heavy, but he remains, at once, opne of contemporary SF’s most literary and readable writers.
Overall score: 6/6 This may be Wilson’s strongest work since Julian Comstock, and in places recalls his most famous, Spin. It is a pity, in the chaos surrounding major SF awards, that The Affinities received nary a mention.
In total, The Affinities receives 35/42
1. Wilson did not invent the term, but he freely admits to extrapolating from it in ways no serious researcher has ever indicated may be valid. It’s called, of course, “science fiction.”