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Marissa Lingen

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The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson [Apr. 9th, 2015|02:35 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Tor.

Nerds like taxonomies. This is a truism we use around here a lot, but there it is. In The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson manages to write about a highly taxonomized future without telling us more than the tiniest bit about those taxonomies. Sixty percent of people, this book postulates, fit into twenty-two “affinity groups.” Okay? But what these affinity groups are, how they work, why they work, remains sketchy at best. Many of the characters are part of the Tau affinity group, and all I could make out of the Taus is that they are “nice enough, I guess.” Their main competitors for resources and political power are the Hets, who are not nice enough, who are in fact frankly villainous. So we have the good guys, the bad guys, the 40% unclassified, and…twenty other affinity groups, of which we know that…one of them is kind of flaky? That’s pretty much it.

For this book to work, we are asked to believe that the affinity groups work amazingly well together…but this is repeatedly told and never even remotely shown. They are to be mentally, emotionally, socially, and neurologically amazingly compatible–but couples who share the same affinity group and find each other without help are supposed to be rare? And no one says, “eh, this is all right, but I’m actually more compatible with” any of the other affinity groups humans already form. Fraternities and sororities, bird watchers, alumni of particular colleges/universities, folk dancers…well, yeah. The number of things people already form clumps around is large. And those clumps already give advantages to some over others–I, for example, would go farther for a randomly selected Gustavus physics major than I would for a randomly selected member of the general population. I don’t have a lot of pull in getting people jobs etc.–but I absolutely would try at least a tiny bit harder for one of “us.” Or one of another of a dozen “us”es I have. But in The Affinities, the affinity groups discovered are so powerful that they completely crush any other possible ways of forming kin and affines. For nearly everybody. And yet! And yet they are distributed more or less randomly, so that you always have the useful profession you want available, whether it’s substance-abuse counselor or helicopter pilot–and never discover that, eh, nobody in your affinity group really likes to do [job], so you can’t really rely on them for that.

Further, the affinity groups have enough time to get themselves deeply embedded in a society that is clearly (from the grandmother’s class year) the future and yet behaves like ten years ago or so. Other than affinity groups, nothing has changed over the course of this entire future. There are tensions in South Asia; people use cell phones but not for anything interesting; the same cars are prestigious and the same behaviors are denigrated or lauded by society at large and its more reactionary members in particular. When people complain about SF novels not addressing the present, much less the future, this is exactly the sort of book on their minds.

This is a lot to swallow, and in fact I couldn’t swallow it. Robert Charles Wilson’s books are always readable on a sentence or even paragraph level, so it was a painless read in that sense. But the social thinking…just did not work for me. I found it unconvincing in its particulars and as a whole. I didn’t even find it interestingly wrong, because it wasn’t engaging with any depth on the topic of what makes people work well together or not, and which ways of working well together engage the wider world in positive and negative ways. It just sort of skated over those questions for a shallow action plot and a deeply obvious “twist” ending. I wanted to like this book or, failing that, find it interesting to argue with. I can’t say that either happened.

Please consider using our link to buy The Affinities from Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


From: swan_tower
2015-04-09 09:01 pm (UTC)
There's something ironic about hitting the boilerplate "please consider buying" line at the end of a thoroughly negative review . . . .
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2015-04-09 10:56 pm (UTC)
Years and years ago, John Barnes looked at something like affinity groups in his story "Stochasm." I think he gave them more substance than what you're describing here. It was a very indirect-exposition kind of story, but what I could tell of his imagined sociometric methods persuaded me.
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[User Picture]From: landofnowhere
2015-04-10 01:11 am (UTC)
I won the ARC of this in the Vericon charity auction -- Robert Charles Wilson has kind of been on my "authors to read" list for a while -- and had a similar reaction. Apparently I should have taken seriously the blurb on the back from Stephen King saying that Wilson's geek quotient is basically zero.

Are there other books by Wilson that you've liked better?
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-04-10 01:23 am (UTC)
Speaking only for myself, I enjoyed Darwinia best.

The Chronoliths and Spin felt very much like he was going back to the same well, though I know a lot of people liked Spin more than I did.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-10 02:23 am (UTC)
I agree with Alec about Darwinia. I always want to like Wilson books better than I do.
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[User Picture]From: fadethecat
2015-04-11 10:37 pm (UTC)
Darwinia felt so much like cheating, to me; but I thought I was the only one who felt that way! I admit that's been enough for me to be dubious about trying anything else by the same author.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-04-10 02:35 am (UTC)
Posting from my phone because LJ really doesn't want to load on my home browser for whatever reason.

I have two thoughts on the premise, one of which is nerdy inside baseball, and the other of which speaks to the "not addressing the present" point.

First, it seems like Wilson is covering much the same ground as Cory Doctorow in Eastern Standard Tribe... except Cory had the grace to make his protagonist's affinity-group based worldview not correspond to reality when push came to shove.

Second, affinity groups connected by the Internet are already deploying power in a variety of ways, many of them rather sub-awesome. Gamergate is just the most recent and visible example - 4chan, Something Awful, groups of Redditors, and Anonymous all organized various sorts of interventions over the last decade, from the humorous and socially aware to the horrifying. Obviously, those groups are self-selected rather than the magical, seamless affinity groups that Wilson's premise postulates. But because they're self-selected, all the dynamics you mention about not liking to do a certain job (or being of a certain age/gender, or having social/political connections one is willing to draw on for the group) come into play.

And then there's Kickstarter and the ~$8M+ the Oatmeal and partners got to make a card game about exploding kittens. So yeah. The present is pretty weird already, thanks.

Edited at 2015-04-10 02:43 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: brithistorian
2015-04-10 06:18 pm (UTC)
How disappointing. It sounds like Wilson had an interesting idea but then had some sort of massive disconnect the idea and the story that came out of it. In my mind, the science fictional method works like "have an idea, extrapolate from it, write the story that results." Based on that model, it sounds like Wilson either skipped the extrapolation, or else extrapolated, didn't like where that took him, and so tried to write the story he wanted to write rather than the one that he should have written.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-04-10 08:06 pm (UTC)
So I think there may be two problems here. Mind you, this is only a guess.

1) The extrapolation of this idea was character-dependent, and RCW is not a hugely fabulous character guy. He's better with ideas that are more thing-dependent. He's not as extreme as Kim Stanley Robinson that way, but it still does come up.

2) The extrapolation of this idea was something that RCW knew we didn't have the basis for now and did not want to get wrong. So he left it vague. This sometimes works! If you don't explain exactly how the spaceship drive functions, but you do have really convincing relationships between the engineer and the pilot, you're golden. ...and then you see the problem here. Because the extrapolation of this idea is inherently about interpersonal interactions, so leaving that vague leaves you a limited number of other venues for making the speculation feel both convincing and interesting.
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[User Picture]From: brithistorian
2015-04-10 08:54 pm (UTC)
Ah, makes sense. It's one thing to use handwavium to cover shortcomings in your science, but quite another to try to use it to cover shortcomings in your fictions.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2015-04-11 01:15 am (UTC)
It sounds like bad soul-bonding fanfic, minus the smut.
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