reviewed by Zeke Teflon
Over the last decade, matching algorithms have become part of everyday life, or at least online life, with their being used in everything from ads matched to browsing histories to online dating. Robert Charles Wilson has projected this trend into the near future with The Affinities.
The premise is that matching algorithms have continued to be ever more refined, and that aided by neuroscience they’ve reached the point where they can match people with similar outlooks and personality traits, people who would inherently get along, have a natural affinity for each other. Beyond that, the testing and matching have been marketed on a mass basis by a computer science company that then places people–bar the 40% who don’t fit into any category–into one of 22 formal and close knit affinity groups which function as near-ideal families: places where members are unconditionally accepted and where they intuitively understand each other, and where they cooperate best with their like-minded peers.
The novel follows a young man from a far from ideal family, Adam Fisk, as he gradually becomes more and more immersed, over 20 years, in his affinity group. The characterization of Fisk and many of the secondary characters, notably members of Fisk’s biological family, is convincing, more so than the characterizations of the members of Fisk’s affinity group. The reason for this is likely that it’s difficult to make secondary characters interesting when they’re almost exactly aligned with the primary character; flaws and disagreements make for interesting characters; near-exact alignment doesn’t.
But the main interest in The Affinities lies in the development of the groups themselves, in particular Fisk’s group, Tau, the loosest, largest, least authoritarian of the groups. (The different groups all take their names from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.) At the beginning, seen through Fisk’s bedazzled eyes, Tau looks like paradise. As the years go by, however, a darker side of the group gradually emerges.
Like members of all in groups, the members of Tau begin to see themselves as better than outsiders, and express that arrogant belief through, among other things, using depreciative terms for outsiders, and discouragement of members from having close relationships with outsiders, even with their biological families. Effectively, they dehumanize outsiders.
It also turns out that cooperation and close coordination aren’t always good things in the affinity groups, particularly in the most hierarchical and authoritarian of them, Het. Shortly into the narrative, tensions begin to arise between the various affinity groups, tensions which eventually lead to open hostilities with both the other groups and various governments.
The central character, Adam Fisk, plays a leading role in the inter-group hostilities, and the increasingly sordid tactics employed by both Fisk’s group, Tau, and their primary opponent, Het, lead Fisk to a crisis of conscience, which in turn leads to an unexpected (though foreshadowed) denouement.
Well plotted, with convincing characters and considerable insight into group dynamics and psychology, The Affinities is a thought provoking, enjoyable read.
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(Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)