Gary K. Wolfe reviews Robert Charles Wilson

The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 978-0-7653-3262-2, $25.99, 302pp, hc) April 2015.

I suppose it’s pretty unlikely that Robert Charles Wilson had Goethe in mind when he titled his new novel The Affinities, but the fact is that Goethe’s 1809 romantic melodrama Elective Affinities stands a good chance of being the ur-text for stories which try to find connections between measurable scientific principles and the mysteries of human bonding. In Goethe’s case, the science was chemistry (a metaphor which has never died away, even though it has never quite worked), but then he lived long before the era of ACTs and, and his novel is really about the affinities between individuals, not whole groups. A version of eugenics was used to divide people into castes in Huxley’s Brave New World, but by the time we got to stories like Asimov’s ‘‘Profession’’ (1957), and much more recently to Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent series, standardized aptitude tests had pretty much taken over, just as they’ve pretty much taken over the lives of anyone under 18. Apart from ramping up the testing procedures to include neurology and brain-mapping, Wilson’s main variations on this theme, drawn mostly from social media, are that the testing is purely voluntary (and not cheap), that it’s run by a private corporation called InterAlia, and that only about 60% of the testees end up qualifying for any of the twenty-two ‘‘Affinity groups’’ that the company has identified through its research. It’s tempting to say the novel is a grown-up version of the Divergent series, but that would overlook one of the novel’s main insights: if the government pigeonholes you on the basis of required tests, it’s pretty much a dystopia to begin with, but if you choose to be tested and join a group, the dystopia or utopia is what you and the group make of it.

Frankly, this idea of affinity groups is not the most powerful of Wilson’s conceits, but his novels have always straddled a line between compelling stories of character and complex family relationships on the one hand, and Big Reveals on the other. To the extent that The Affinities is successful – and I think it is – depends far more on the former than the latter. Adam Fisk is a struggling art student in Toronto, his tuition paid by a loving grandmother even though his hardnosed father and politically ambitious brother disapprove. After a painful confrontation with the police during a demonstration he isn’t even part of, he decides to take the InterAlia tests, and finds himself assigned to the largest and most powerful of the Affinities, called Tau. His first meeting with members of the group is almost utopian, leading not only to a group of friends on the same wavelength, but to a romantic attachment and even a job.

At this point, many writers, and probably many readers, would find it hard to resist the paranoid thriller in the making – Tau is ominous! Tau is vampires! It’s a cookbook! – but to his credit Wilson doesn’t want to go there. The folks at Tau, from the Indian-American woman that he falls in love with to the aging ladies who run a kind of safe house to the burly gay man who serves as the local group’s muscle, are mostly ingratiating and humane characters. There are some conspiracies afoot, however, from the real purpose of the affinity groups (learned from a meeting with the original designer of ‘‘teleodynamics,’’ who turns out to be a kind of Hari Seldon with his predictions of future developments) to a competing group called Het – far more hierarchical and militaristic than Tau – which seeks to leverage political power through its members. Wilson never really makes how all the other affinity groups operate quite convincing, or what their different personalities are, or what’s supposed to happen to the 40% who never qualify for any group, but his central notion that such groups can find ‘‘new ways to model the boundary between consciousness and culture,’’ with the potential to reorganize human society along lines that might threaten traditional corporate, government, or ethnic loyalties, is intriguing. But without Wilson’s sharp character studies, ranging from Fisk to his ex-girlfriend to his rather unpleasant family members and his more likeable affinity mates, intriguing is all that it would be. Wilson has always written strongly humanistic tales of relationships within SF frameworks, and sometimes the SF itself is mostly a way of exploring the ways in which we cope, or fail to cope, with change. This may be Wilson’s grand theme, and it’s no less skillfully handled here than in his more spectacular slingshot novels.

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2 thoughts on “Gary K. Wolfe reviews Robert Charles Wilson

  • May 7, 2015 at 6:27 am

    The testing regime in J.T. MacIntosh’s World Out of Mind was also voluntary, but non-profit. If such a process were actually possible, I rather think there would be extremely strong tendencies for government subsidization, not just of individuals but for corporations that wished to benefit from the personnel screening.

    Also, we spend a great deal of today’s daily life pigeonholed on the basis of required tests, like your credit rating. I’m not sure from this review that Wilson has managed to rise above hand me down literary notions about “character.”

  • May 7, 2015 at 8:58 am

    I enjoyed the book and it’s definitely worth a read. The idea of the affinity groups had just enough originality to be fresh and compelling, and I concur Wilson’s very distinct and attractive characters brought the scenario alive. But I felt like the ending was a disappointing fizzle. The book started out like a long novel but wrapped up like a novelette. It was like Wilson got tired of his scenario and said “well so much for all of that.”


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