Fiction Reviews

The Affinities

(2015) Robert Charles Wilson, Tor (US), £9.99 / Can$22.99 / US$15.99, pbk, 301pp, ISBN 978-0-765-38444-7


It is the day after tomorrow and a new social grouping tool has arrived that is beginning to successfully challenge the likes of internet based social media (MyFace, TweetBook, ConnectWith etc should you wish invented examples).  This new social grouping tool depends on who you are and this is a mix of nature and nurture. Those joining have their DNA sequenced for certain markers, their brain scanned for connecteome traits, and have to answer many questions and watch images while their brain is monitored. At the end of all this, the lucky applicant is assigned to one of twenty two 'Affinities' that consist of people most like the applicant. (Unlucky applicants who do not fit in with an Affinity simply get their money back.)  In an Affinity you will meet people with whom you are most likely to get on and, importantly, cooperate with in many areas of life: leisure, business, culture, etc.

Student Adam Fisk, at college in Toronto, is studying to avoid a future in his rural family business and more or less accidentally ends up getting tested. A few weeks later and he is informed that he can join Tau: one of the biggest and most successfully Affinities.

At first things go well, though Adam looses an elderly grandmother who had been funding his studies, he escapes having to return to the family business by working for an enterprise run by a Tau member. Things are going well. He has a career. A place to stay at a Tau communal house. And he has money.

Indeed, some Affinities commercial enterprises are very successful and so they have a recognised contribution to the economy, hence the affairs of non-Affinity members. So eventually even governments begin to take notice.

But there are other Affinities, and then there is InterAlia, the data management company that devised the tests for the Affinities: all are concerned as to the future; all want control.

And then there are other problems elsewhere in the world. A storm is brewing…

US born, but living virtually all his life in Canada, Robert Charles Wilson does not have the profile over here in Europe that he enjoys in Canada, and indeed the US. Yet, if I had to, I'd rate him as Canada's leading living SF author in terms of a combination of both the quantity and quality of his works. These range from the Prix Aurora Award-winning Blind Lake, through Bios among others to Spin that in January 2006 we at SF² Concatenation cited as our choice as one of the top SF books of 2005 and which later in 2006 won the Hugo for 'Best Novel'. Indeed I personally consider Julian Comstock as one of his weaker novels of the past quarter century, though that too was nominated for a Hugo making it to the 2010 Hugo shortlist for 'Best Novel'. In short, Robert Charles Wilson has a solid SF track record and The Affinities is his latest gem. To my mind there is a bit of Clifford D. Simak about Wilson's writing. He does not do bloat and keeps his novels' word counts down (at times I feel he should get an award for that if nothing else), he keeps the number of his characters low so as to give his stories a narrative focus, his stories inevitably have an element of sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) in them that often impinges on an everyday person as often as not away from cities in the countryside. I like his novels and I enjoyed The Affinities.

Given the role social media plays not just in our personal lives, but in things such as capturing news items used on national media, given political and financial bubbles, given phenomena such as post-truth politics, the all too common group think that in extremis leads to things like ISIS, Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities speaks very much to us in our time.

Though Wilson has not had much published in Europe by the principal SF/F/H imprints, you can still get hold of his works either at specialist SF bookshops (which I recommend) or an online bookseller (which I wouldn't). This edition, I picked up one of London's SF bookshops, comes from Tor (US). Do seek out reviews of his other novels and, if you like what you see, give him a try.

Jonathan Cowie

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