What’s So Scary About Data Management, Psychology and Social Groups?

Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities has subtle and intelligent writing, dedication to character, and believability -- and a message.

The Affinities, the latest novel by award-winning sci-fi writer Robert Charles Wilson, isn’t a perfect science fiction book—particularly when compared to Wilson’s novel Spin, which won the Hugo in 2006. Is The Affinities still a beautifully written and intelligent book? Absolutely. Particularly because Wilson does something that more science fiction writers might do: he starts small.

While the subject matters differ completely, The Affinities might remind some of the Ray Bradbury classic, “The Sound of Thunder”, a story that perhaps better than any other emphasizes the importance of the smallest things. In “The Sound of Thunder” main character Eckels travels back in time, steps off the path, and accidentally kills a butterfly. This, the killing of the butterfly, changes everything.

The Affinities doesn’t open with aliens attacking earth or interplanetary warfare. It doesn’t open with a huge monster created by a nuclear explosion or some other type of disaster. It doesn’t open with a dystopian society that is almost completely unfamiliar but is still clearly meant to be the US.

Instead, The Affinities opens with a fictitious magazine clip from The Atlantic Magazine that introduces readers to the Affinities:

When an obscure data-management company launched what it called ‘the Affinities’ a couple of years ago, almost no one paid attention. It was a quixotic idea that seemed to gain no traction: there was no ad campaign outside of a few media outlets in a few major cities, and not much press coverage even in those markets. But something surprising was happening under the radar…

The Affinities are the brainchild of an individual named Meir Klein and a company called InterAlia. While they might not have had much of a marketing campaign, the tagline—“Finding Yourself Among Others”—seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, to resonate with their target audience of single 20-somethings. And, again not surprising, the Affinities grow.

Enter main character Adam Fisk. He’s a little bit lost (figuratively speaking) and wants to join an Affinity. He writes his check, provides a blood/DNA sample and sits for a number of tests. In the end, Adam is one of the lucky ones; he does find a match (approximately 40 percent of the population doesn’t and cannot join one of the Affinities).

What does Adam get by joining? At first, a little bit of utopia, perhaps. He is told “Among people of the same Affinity as yourself, you are statistically more likely to trust others, to be trusted, to make friends, to find partners, in general to have successful social engagements. Within your Affinity you will be misunderstood less often and you’ll have an intuitive rapport with many of your trachemates.”

Adam isn’t admitted to just any Affinity, however. Even within the Affinities, there is a hierarchy. While there are 22 Affinity groups, five are considered more powerful. Adam is accepted into what turns out to be the powerhouse of Affinities—Tau. And over the course of several years, Wilson shows how not only this one simple act of joining an Affinity changes everything for Adam, but how the Affinities in general change everything for everyone.

Other than his involvement in Tau, Adam seems like the kind of guy anyone could meet in the grocery store, at the office, or at the dog park. Before becoming a Tau, Adam is worried about normal things: finishing his education and finding a job. Adam never finishes college, but members of the Tau solve his career and financial worries. Of course, the group can’t fix everything. Adam’s grandmother is still terminally ill, he still doesn’t get along well with his father or his brother, and he still worries about his step-brother, Geddy, who is on the autism spectrum.

The science in this book is also not necessarily the science traditionally found in classic science fiction—there are few supercool technological gadgets or tools. No robots or extraordinary advances in the medical field, either. If one primary field of science is stressed in the book, it would be psychology. And then, of course, the science that should seriously scare us all: data management.

Most of the science is related to the testing required to be matched with (or sorted into) one of the Affinities. The process is extensive and when Adam questions the procedure, he’s assured “everything’s connected. A lot of modern science is concerned with understanding patterns of interaction. In heredity, that’s the genome. In how DNA is expressed, we talk about the proteinome. In brain science it’s what they call the connectome… Meir Klein invented the word socionome, for the map of characteristic human interactions.”

Despite a smattering of scientific terminology, The Affinities doesn’t always feel like traditional or mainstream science fiction. It doesn’t have, as the back cover notes, a big “geek factor”. With its subtlety and intelligent writing along with a dedication to character and a nice dose of believability, it’s a book that should appeal not only to Wilson fans but anyone who likes a good story with just a touch of science. It also serves as a reminder that sometimes the things we should be thinking about aren’t necessarily the big, flashy stories broadcast on the major media networks; sometimes it should be the little things that no one is talking about.

RATING 7 / 10