by Robert Charles Wilson
Cover Artist: Shutterstock
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765332622
Date: 21 April 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Need a group of instant friends who will be closer to you than your own family? In the near future of Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities there's an app for that. Well, it's a bit more complex than an app--it's a series of neurological tests from a company called InterAlia that match 60% of people with one of 22 Affinity groups.
Those who are sorted are invited to join local chapters (tranches) of their Affinity who hold meetings and try to help each other out. Each (named for the Phoenician alphabet) Affinity is made up of people who are most likely to cooperate with each other. They can be described as a cross between Harry Potter's House system and a fraternal order (with a dash of the mafia in the second half of the book.
The Affinities insist they are not a cult, as there is no ideology or spiritual beliefs. But as they gain more power governments and traditional religions grow alarmed.
The hero, Adam Fisk, comes from a dysfunctional family. His father, a stern patriarchal figure disapproved of Adam's desire to become an artist, questioned whether he was normal, and refused to pay for his graphic design courses. His older brother Aaron, the golden boy of the family, following in their father's footsteps, has little use for his younger siblings, and is a bully. Stepmother Laura is clearly under her husbandís authority. Adam sympathizes with his stepbrother Geddy, a high functioning autistic who is frequently criticized by their father.
Adam takes the InterAlia tests and is placed into Tau, one of the largest Affinities. When Adamís grandmother, who had been paying for his college, dies, the local Tau group takes him in, finding him a job and a room in the house of two Tau members. He also acquires a Tau girlfriend, Amanda, and learns to accept that she sometimes sleeps with other Taus. But when a fellow Tau member is stalked by an ex-husband, Adam sees the dark side of the Tau network. And after a car accident, Amanda tells him to lie about who was driving so that the Tau driver (an important Tau leader) who had had a couple of drinks would not get in trouble. He also discovers that relationships with non-Tau, tethers, are frowned upon. And people in an Affinity are retested every three years for drift from the Affinity, and if they no longer qualify, are kicked out and shunned by all their Affinity friends.
Throughout the book the author stresses the contrast between the Fisk family and the Tau group. In a conversation, Adamís father says the Affinities are like a cult because it breaks up families. Amanda says that the Affinities are ďa group of people you can trust, who trust you.Ē But when Adamís brother, now a congressman, becomes pivotal to a rival Affinity groupís effort to target Tau through a bill in Congress, Adam is forced to choose between Tau and his family.
Some readers may question whether The Affinities is really science fiction. Organizations similar to the Affinities already exist--everything from Mensa, to the Masons, and Eagles, to, yes, science fiction fandom. The only new technology introduced in the book is the testing and sorting mechanism used to place people in Affinities--part of the book's plot is the effort by the Tau to reverse engineer this system. Still, I would argue this is social science fiction. It takes a minor difference from our current reality--the creation of the Affinities--and plays with the implications on people and society. In a world where religious and community ties are ebbing, where people in cities frequently do not know their neighbors, and where, in the words of social capital theorist Robert Putnam, people are "bowling alone", the Affinities would represent a major shift.
The Affinities is an intriguing work of social science fiction. While there is certainly some action, this book would not appeal to readers looking for space battles or the big science ideas of Spin. No worlds are threatened or even taken over. Instead, this is the story of one man's struggle with relationships and to find a place where he fits in.