The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

Review copy provided by Tor.

Nerds like taxonomies. This is a truism we use around here a lot, but there it is. In The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson manages to write about a highly taxonomized future without telling us more than the tiniest bit about those taxonomies. Sixty percent of people, this book postulates, fit into twenty-two “affinity groups.” Okay? But what these affinity groups are, how they work, why they work, remains sketchy at best. Many of the characters are part of the Tau affinity group, and all I could make out of the Taus is that they are “nice enough, I guess.” Their main competitors for resources and political power are the Hets, who are not nice enough, who are in fact frankly villainous. So we have the good guys, the bad guys, the 40% unclassified, and…twenty other affinity groups, of which we know that…one of them is kind of flaky? That’s pretty much it.

For this book to work, we are asked to believe that the affinity groups work amazingly well together…but this is repeatedly told and never even remotely shown. They are to be mentally, emotionally, socially, and neurologically amazingly compatible–but couples who share the same affinity group and find each other without help are supposed to be rare? And no one says, “eh, this is all right, but I’m actually more compatible with” any of the other affinity groups humans already form. Fraternities and sororities, bird watchers, alumni of particular colleges/universities, folk dancers…well, yeah. The number of things people already form clumps around is large. And those clumps already give advantages to some over others–I, for example, would go farther for a randomly selected Gustavus physics major than I would for a randomly selected member of the general population. I don’t have a lot of pull in getting people jobs etc.–but I absolutely would try at least a tiny bit harder for one of “us.” Or one of another of a dozen “us”es I have. But in The Affinities, the affinity groups discovered are so powerful that they completely crush any other possible ways of forming kin and affines. For nearly everybody. And yet! And yet they are distributed more or less randomly, so that you always have the useful profession you want available, whether it’s substance-abuse counselor or helicopter pilot–and never discover that, eh, nobody in your affinity group really likes to do [job], so you can’t really rely on them for that.

Further, the affinity groups have enough time to get themselves deeply embedded in a society that is clearly (from the grandmother’s class year) the future and yet behaves like ten years ago or so. Other than affinity groups, nothing has changed over the course of this entire future. There are tensions in South Asia; people use cell phones but not for anything interesting; the same cars are prestigious and the same behaviors are denigrated or lauded by society at large and its more reactionary members in particular. When people complain about SF novels not addressing the present, much less the future, this is exactly the sort of book on their minds.

This is a lot to swallow, and in fact I couldn’t swallow it. Robert Charles Wilson’s books are always readable on a sentence or even paragraph level, so it was a painless read in that sense. But the social thinking…just did not work for me. I found it unconvincing in its particulars and as a whole. I didn’t even find it interestingly wrong, because it wasn’t engaging with any depth on the topic of what makes people work well together or not, and which ways of working well together engage the wider world in positive and negative ways. It just sort of skated over those questions for a shallow action plot and a deeply obvious “twist” ending. I wanted to like this book or, failing that, find it interesting to argue with. I can’t say that either happened.

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