BY: MICHAEL LYONS
“Imagine walking into a room of people,” a calm voiceover says with an ambient piano refrain playing behind it. A young man is shown walking through a door into a crowded space. “They are all strangers, but you feel at ease with them. You feel a sense of understanding, of being known, of instant connection.” A diverse range of people, different races, genders and ages, look up from conversations, smiling and nodding at the young man in recognition. “You’re here… among your Affinity.”
“Contact your local InterAlia agency to take the Affinity test today.”
Thus may go the commercial if science fiction writer Robert Charles Wilson’s latest novel, The Affinities, is realized in the not-so-distant future.
“There’s something so seductive about the idea of finding a perfect community for yourself,” says the award-winning author on his latest novel—a chilling speculative fiction story of a future that very well could be. “There are more possibilities than we ever get to exploit in terms of the riches of friendship and love relationships. We can always imagine something better than what we have.”
Coming out late this month, The Affinities imagines a near future where an international corporation, InterAlia, perfects technology to conduct social dynamics tests that place people into different social groups, the titular Affinities. Of the couple dozen social groups, artist, beleaguered millennial and the novel’s protagonist, Adam Fisk, ends up in Tau, an Affinity associated with pot-smoking intellectuals—with a higher than average population of gay and lesbian people.
The creative, American ex-pat living in Toronto finds himself amongst a community so collaborative and empathic their relationships border on telepathy. Feeling like a dejected, hopeless failure, within an evening of joining Tau he falls in love, gets offered a job and avoids the inevitability of moving home with his conservative, tyrannical father and slippery, jealous brother.
While his Affinity seems a paradise, beyond Tau is a world that is increasingly hostile to these new social utopias. Dealing with people outside of Tau becomes an exhausting experience, and other Affinities prove just as adversarial and formidable at collaboration—especially those pesky Hets, a militant Affinity known for rigid social hierarchies and following commands, who so often oppose the work of Tau.
In a time when people spend more time on social media—16 minutes of every waking hour, one American study said in 2013—than volunteering in the community or going to places of worship, the increasing echo chamber effect that comes from curating newsfeeds, followings and friends list, demonstrates evolving modes of social dynamics. “We live in a time when people are finding different ways to communicate with each other, and collaborate with each other,” says Wilson. “Nothing could be more profound for human history than finding new ways to do that. Human cooperation and collaboration is the most powerful tool that we have as a species, and any time you start fiddling with it you’re going to have big consequences.”
“I think we also see this happening whenever we start to see existing social institutions start to disintegrate,” he continues. “When the social structure of the Roman Empire started disintegrating you see people looking for new systems of allegiance. That’s why Christianity emerged as such a powerful force. I think we live in a perfect storm of new social technologies and crumbling institutions.”
Wilson’s inspiration for The Affinities started with the work of a biological anthropologist. His concept of teleodynamics, “the special thermodynamics of living things” claims living organisms or individuals experience biological “movement towards a goal” in their own self-interest.
“At one point he suggested that if we begin to understand this process better, it might help us understand, not just the human mind but human behavior, and the way human behavior links up with other people, so a ‘social teleodynamics’ might come to exist,” Wilson says. According to Wilson, this ideal of social teleodynamics sparked thoughts of algorithms and testing equipment, explaining that “nothing attracts a science fiction writer like the idea of an un-invented technology.”
Would he join one of his Affinities? “I guess I designed Tau as an Affinity that would be really attractive to me, personally,” Wilson says, although there’s a catch, a tension that runs through the novel; a number of people who get tested don’t qualify for any Affinity. “My predisposition is to suspect that I wouldn’t pass the test. We all feel like outsiders often, too. I think part of me suspects that there wouldn’t be an Affinity for me.”
Wilson’s latest novel is some of the best writing from the prolific science fiction author. The Affinities is a delectable slice of speculative fiction that sits exquisitely between a spy thriller and a dystopian horror. Beyond that, his thought experiment has created something so tempting, so alluring in The Affinities. Even with the possibility of not qualifying, even with all of the disruptive social dynamics and the possible violent rivalries between these new social groups, if I saw the InterAlia ad I would run out and get tested, without hesitation, and pray I get placed in an Affinity.