Facebook. Twitter. Tumblr. Instagram. Snapchat. LinkedIn. Pinterest. Google+. Reddit. Social media. These and other sites keep us connected to friends, family, and strangers with like interests (or not, as the case may be). 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 by the name of Meir Klein, 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 regions, other countries. Not everyone fits into an Affinity; four out of every ten people tested for compatibility with any Affinity are turned away. But those who are accepted share sensitivities, behaviors, sensibilities, based on genetics, brain mapping, and other behavioral benchmarks, down to DNA sequencing and secondary metabolites. Those who find themselves assigned to an Affinity 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 nothing 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 other than what an individual places on themselves, no dues or 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; relationships within an Affinity are not promoted, but are not frowned upon. Someone within an Affinity could even be married to someone outside of it, although that spouse (and children) would have to remain outside of the official functions. This exclusivity is for security and to maintain trust and rapport, not to be secret or hidden. Sometimes, even, “drift” occurs, and a colleague is asked to leave the Affinity due to a natural change in compatibility. The Affinities are named after letters in the Phoenician alphabet, with the “big five” being Bet, Zai, Het, Semk and Tau.
For graphic artist Adam Fisk, being assigned to the Tau Affinity was 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 had left behind a belittling and bigoted father, a stifling upbringing and a slide into mediocrity, but on his own he had 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, something they belatedly learn was suspected to happen all along. Meir Klein’s research, smuggled out to Tau leadership after his murder, 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 so, as international crises mount, so do the conflicts between Affinities. The question then becomes, where does the vision end and the manipulation begin? When a war between Affinities erupts, as it certainly seems it must, can there be any true victor? Can a social construct survive global saturation when its framework is still solidly grounded in exclusion?
Before you worry about answers to these questions, though, allow me to let you in on a little secret: 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. For 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, slightly effeminate younger stepbrother, Geddy, and his childhood girlfriend, Jenny, who everyone believes he’ll marry, eventually. When Adam finds his community in the Toronto trauche, it is Jenny who perhaps gets the shortest end of the stick. 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. Even author Wilson’s depiction of Schuyler, New York is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure. When Adam reminisces about his small town childhood, you can almost picture the kids “biking down country roads where grasshoppers flocked in the heat like flurries of brown buzzing snow.” It’s mighty close to sublime.
So 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