The best works of science fiction begin with a plausible scientific advancement and take it to a logical yet surprising conclusion. This is exactly what Robert Charles Wilson achieves with The Affinities. He has already won some of the genre’s most prestigious honors, including the Philip K. Dick Award (Mysterium, 1994), the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (The Chronoliths, 2001) and the Hugo Award (Spin, 2005). Wilson will likely need to clear some more space on his trophy shelf thanks to The Affinities.
The novel takes place in the not-so-distant future. Social media have reached the next stage of their evolution with “the Affinities.” Based on the science of “teleodynamics,” an Internet entrepreneur has developed a complex algorithm that maps people’s “socionome” and groups them by deep-seated psychological compatibility. The bonds between members of an Affinity run far deeper than nationality, race, class or even family.
The story’s narrator is Adam Fisk, the artistic son of a conservative and overbearing father who is the family’s “unstable radioactive core.” Adam cannot relate to his father, the older brother cut from the same cloth, or his much put-upon stepmother. The only family members with whom he can relate are Granny Fisk, an ex-beatnik who shared with him her secret collection of old folk albums, and his 12-year-old stepbrother Geddy, who, like Adam, “was quiet and easily intimidated and more bookish than he liked to let on.”
As The Affinities begins, Adam is away at college, studying graphic design in Toronto. His father does not approve of his chosen field of study (“he considered any degree that wasn’t an MBA a concession to limp-wristed liberalism”), but Granny Fisk pays his tuition until she suffers a stroke. Without her support, Adam will have to return to Onenia County, New York, and fall back under the thumb of his narrow-minded father.
But on a whim, Adam takes a test offered by InterAlia Corp. to determine whether he belongs to an Affinity. He ends up joining the “Tau” Affinity (each is named for one of the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet) and is blown away by the instant rapport he establishes with members of this group of complete strangers. He and his fellow Taus truly are kindred spirits whose thought processes work so similarly they joke of communicating through “Tau telepathy.”
The members of an Affinity quickly develop absolute trust in one another. Because of this absolute trust, the Affinities are capable of amazing feats of cooperation. Adam learns that he can rely upon the members of his “tranche” (local chapter), but even his “sodality” (national organization) and an entire international network of Taus. Adam’s Tau connections provide him with housing and a job so that he doesn’t need to move back in with his father.
The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, Adam is a young college student reveling in the sense of belonging he feels as a Tau. The second part picks up four years later when Adam is completely immersed in his Affinity. He has become successful, and so has the Affinity itself. The ability to cooperate so effectively has turned Tau—and some of the other Affinities—into a wealthy and successful social organization. The Taus even create their own hospitals and a pension system, rendering state-sponsored social safety net programs obsolete—at least for those lucky enough to belong to a successful Affinity.
Another eleven years pass before the third part. At this point the Affinities are so powerful that Congress is considering legislation to rein them in, legislation Adam fights in his role as “ambassador” for Tau. But the real threat comes not from the government, but from Het, a rival Affinity. Where Taus achieved success through an egalitarian social structure that maximized cooperation, Hets are supremely hierarchical. Het is therefore capable of acting far quicker than consensus-seeking Tau. The rivalry between Affinities eventually devolves into “tranche warfare.”
Wilson succeeds in establishing a believable world in which social networks rival nation-states. The Taus are all interesting characters, each unique despite their shared socionomes. But Adam’s father and brother (and all of the Hets) are completely one-dimensional. At no point do any of them demonstrate even a hint of decency. While this is understandable in the case of the Hets, who are by nature unknowable to Adam, it strains credibility that he never observes a single redeeming quality in his father or brother. Great novelists know to show at least a little sympathy for the devil.
Despite a couple of flat characters, though, The Affinities is a fast-paced and engaging story that foretells a plausible future in which social media become the most dominant force in society. After reading this book, you’ll never feel the same way about accepting a “friend request” again.