Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Affinities

The Affinities
Robert Charles Wilson, 2015

Our hero, Adam, is a graphic design student in Toronto. He has an unsettled home life and uncertain finances, but things begin to look up for him when he takes the Affinities test and learns that he’s a Tau.

You see, there’s a company called InterAlia that claims that by giving you an intensive personality test, they may be able to sort you into one of twenty-two Affinities. These will be people whose minds work like yours. They will think like you and you will think like them, and the social cohesion will allow you to make the closest friends you've ever had, and easily work together on collaborative projects.

When Adam meets up with other Taus in the area, they do indeed change his life, as he finds a warm, welcoming community that he’d never realized existed. Tau Affinity provides him with a network of contacts that he can use to find work and achieve financial stability, and his new friends help him free himself of his dysfunctional family.

Judging from online discussion that I’ve seen, it was at this point that many readers began to feel dissatisfied with the novel. InterAlia's test has a Sorting Hat feel to it, but this book won’t inspire any Facebook quizzes promising to reveal your true Affinity, because the Affinities aren’t really about classifying human beings into easily caricatured groups.

The Taus have an in-universe reputation as laid-back potheads who are good with money, and another major Affinity is said to be rigidly hierarchical, but Wilson’s intention for this book has little to do with the distinctions between different Affinities and therefore he barely mentions any details about most of the others.

Instead, what interests Wilson is how society reacts to these Affinities, which can appear to outsiders to be cult-like or elitist, as Taus have access to a range of services not available to those who don’t qualify based on the personality test, and this exclusiveness is only magnified by the fact that a large segment of the population don’t qualify for membership in any Affinity at all. Wilson also looks at how these Affinities react to stress: the Affinities eventually outgrow the for-profit corporation InterAlia, and when this happens their agendas come into conflict.

In other words, this is sociological speculative fiction: what interests Wilson is how our sense of community may evolve in the future. We’ve all heard the Bowling Alone-esque worries that life is becoming more fragmented and humans are becoming more isolated, and in Affinities, Wilson gives us a glimpse of a society that is inventing novel frameworks for humans to work together.

When people of the same Affinity work together, they are capable of doing great things, but as long as they continue to work the way they do, they will always be exclusive clubs. As long as the Taus exist, outsiders will always look at the advantages their members enjoy, advantages which are closed to outsiders, and feel envy, even contempt.

While one could imagine further books being written in this universe, I felt that Wilson intends for The Affinities to remain a singleton -- the end of the book gives the strong impression that human society is continuing to evolve and the Affinities will ultimately turn out to have been merely a stage in society’s development.

But really, this is the story of our protagonist Adam. Remember him? I last mentioned him five or six paragraphs ago. The Affinities follows Adam through his twenties and thirties, as he falls in and out of love, gains and loses employment, and gets involved in more than one dangerous scheme -- and during this time his life is completely bound up with Tau Affinity. Wilson’s a good enough prose writer that the book’s engaging even when dealing with the most ordinary details of Adam’s life.

If you pick up The Affinities imagining you’ll be able to say “I think I’d fit into ________ Affinity!”, you’ll be disappointed. If you’d like to explore an alternative way human beings can find community, you’ll have much more realistic expectations.

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