24 September, 2021

How to Grow Old Disgracefully & The Affinities

The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. LinkedIn. Pinterest. Reddit. Social media. Sites keep us connected to friends, family, and strangers with like interests. But what if the germ of the idea behind social media – bringing people with similar tendencies and personalities – was taken a step further?

That’s the gist behind Robert Charles Wilson’s exceptional novel, The Affinities. In it, a professor working to construct a taxonomy of human social behavior comes up with a basic structure of twenty-two “Affinities” that a person could be sorted into, forming a face-to-face social unit, networked with others in their Affinity in other towns, other states, other countries. Not everyone fits into an Affinity, but those who are accepted share behaviors and sensibilities, based on genetics, brain mapping, and other behavioral benchmarks; they find more than like minded individuals – they find a kind of family.

As much as the general non-affiliated public may liken the Affinities to a cult, they are northing of the sort. Completely volunteer even if one is deemed compatible, there is no heavy-handed recruitment and no pressure to join after the initial meet-up. There is no initiation, no commitment, no financial coercion. Many Affinities don’t have leaders. One does not need to live with others in their Affinity, although it’s not uncommon for them do to so. Anyone can leave at any time. Exclusivity is for security and to maintain trust and rapport, not to be secret or hidden.

Robert Charles Wilson - Wikipedia
Robert Charles Wilson

For graphic artist Adam Fisk, being assigned to the Tau Affinity is like being thrown a lifeline. Living as a student in Toronto but hailing from a small town in upstate New York, Adam’s life was going nowhere. He has left behind a belittling and bigoted father, a stifling upbringing and a slide into mediocrity, but on his own has a hard time making friends or finding meaningful employment. He decides to get tested despite the sense that in doing so he is giving in to his own inadequacy. Instead, he finds a home.

I had felt it when I first walked through the doors of Lisa and Loretta’s house in Toronto. I had felt it when I realized I was in a community of people who loved me, whom I could love freely and confidently in return, and who loved me despite my imperfections as I loved them despite theirs. I had recognized in that house the presence of what was so conspicuously absent in the house where I had grown up:  the possibility of being both truly known and genuinely loved.

It’s a revelation for Adam, and he blossoms in the tranche (the name given local Affinity groups of no more than 30 members) to which he has been assigned. Tau gives him stability when a crisis hits his family, safety when he feels adrift, and support when he struggles with self doubt.

But as the Affinities grow in popularity and their foundation of collaboration proves incredibly successful, they begin to exert influence beyond their own structure. Research suggests that the Affinities could become major players in the evolution of a pan-global culture, increasingly influencing politics, national policy and international economics. Certain factions within Tau feel that the Affinities – and specifically their own Affinity – were set in motion so as to become what was eluding modern society:  a global human conscience.

The problem is that other Affinities are also growing in population and influence, and their world views do not necessarily match that of Tau. And as international crises mount, so do the conflicts between Affinities. The question then becomes, where does the vision end and the manipulation begin? 

But don’t worry – The Affinities is about a lot more than social constructs and global politics. In fact, while the structure of the story may be built on “the grid of the human socionome” and teleodyamics research (yes, that really is a “thing”), they are simply the playground on which the best of the story unfolds. This novel is really about Adam and what he goes through during his time with Tau, which reaches far beyond simply interacting with others in his Affinity.

Much of the book explores the reasons for Adam’s isolation and melancholy prior to joining Tau, through both lead-up and flashback, including his upbringing and struggles with his biological family:  the overbearing father, the kind-hearted but acquiescing stepmother, the golden older brother. Other characters become key to the narrative, including Adam’s awkward, slightly autistic younger stepbrother, Geddy, and his childhood girlfriend, Jenny, who everyone believes he’ll marry, eventually. These characters, while still in a supporting role, become rich and compelling on their own, giving us as readers an anchor in the “real”, non-Tau world, allowing us to see Adam from the viewpoint of those left behind. 

Bottom line, come to The Affinities for the sociological, technological and political intrigue – and it’s gripping – and stay for the touching examination of the very vulnerable human condition. Either way, you’re going to be entirely wrapped up in the pages of this journey, from start to finish.

Sharon Browning

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