Robert Charles Wilson is back in fine form with his latest novel, perhaps his finest since Spin. In it, he tackles Big Data and social networking, children of our nascent century which have nevertheless quickly grown up together, and brought the world with them.
Wilson imagines how a series of neurological, psychological and physiological tests might determine a sort of modern-day Zodiac, sorting humankind into “affinities” based on their deepest truest selves. These affinities look beyond the surface, identifying the sorts of people who might — nay, will — understand you and form a kinship with you deeper than any you may have experienced before.
It’s something like a social club, something like personality profile–based matchmaker site, and something like a new ethnicity. Some call it a cult. Taus (members of the affinity the book mostly focuses on) have what they call a sort of telepathy, perhaps more properly described as a deep empathy, understanding each other’s hidden emotions intuitively. But it’s also a sort of tribalism, and you have to imagine that it could all go wrong somehow.
The focus, as always in Wilson’s works, is on the characters. The protagonist of The Affinities, Adam Fisk, is a graphic design student, a native of New York state but studying in Toronto. Near the beginning of the novel he loses his grandmother, the only blood relative to really understand him, and the only one to support his frivolous artistic dreams.
After a bad day turns into a bad week and threatens to stretch to a month, Adam decides to get himself affinity-tested. His tranche, his local Tau affiliate group, pulls him up from the gutter when he’s at his lowest: Various fellow Taus finding him a place to stay, a job, even a romantic interest.
There are layers upon layers here. The sense of having found a second family, of being rescued, is entirely in line with traditional cults. Yet there is no clear leader, at least not nominally, and not at first. And the only belief that members share in common is, well, a belief in the group itself.
There’s also the matter of privilege. White privilege almost pales (no pun intended) compared to the advantages of testing for one of the big-five affinities. For the lucky ones, financial gain and political power come along with the intangible sense of belonging, safety, and protection.
But what of those who fail to be placed into an affinity, reported as some half of those who choose to take the test? Imagine showing up to Hogwarts and not getting into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin. What of the relationships of new Taus (or Hets, or whatever other Phoenician letter name) to their old, non-Tau family members and friends? Members of the in-group call these relationships from their prior life “tethers,” as in a person who ties you down, or perhaps as someone to cut off.
And what of the political role of such groups? Wilson speaks of teleodynamics, a fictional branch of data science/sociology. When the Taus get a hold of the proprietary data that makes such sorting possible, one of the things it allows is predictions about broad sociopolitical changes, societal collapse, new political powers. Reminiscent of Asimov’s imaginary psychohistory, teleodynamics provides a probabilistic prediction of the collapse of an empire, and one slim chance to preserve the human race.
But this is still just setting. The story is what happens to Adam Fisk and the people he cares about. Early on, Wilson makes the point that the families we’re born into might be arbitrary. Without drawing attention to it, he underscores this point with Geddy, Adam’s young stepbrother, the one person in his father’s house he manages to get along with, and the one person he misses and worries after once he’s managed to escape his biological kin.
Wilson doesn’t undermine this argument later either, but he does suggest that being loved because you’re part of the same affinity with someone rather than because of a shared genetic lineage comes with its own problems. Sometimes it’s easier and sometime it’s harder, but all in all, there’s probably need of more love in the world, not less. Regardless of creed or colour, to trot out a well-worn but time-tested cliché.
How to accomplish that? Now we really are in the realm of science fiction.