Adam Fink was just another graphic art student in Toronto before he took InterAlia’a affinity test. The affinity test examines a person’s genes, brain patterns, and behavior and sorts people into one of twenty-two affinities (or into none of them). InterAlia has an algorithm that’s sort of like online dating, but it looks like they got it right this time.
The Affinities are still new when Adam takes the test. Not a lot is widely known about them, but there are twenty-two Affinity groups. The Taus might be the largest Affinity, and though it’s wrong to generalize, their members tend to smoke pot, they tend to enter open relationships, and they tend to prefer decentralized groups to hierarchical leadership. The Hets, meanwhile, are extremely hierarchical and deeply concerned with power and dominance. Given that Robert Charles Wilson was born in America and lives in Canada, I kept wondering if he was drawing on Democrats v. Republicans or the Conservatives and the NDP for his inspiration.
Not everyone that takes the test will discover a compatible Affinity, but the ones that do join an Affinity will meet a group of people with whom they will naturally and intuitively communicate and cooperate. So when Adam learns that he is not an Average Joe but rather an average Tau, he decides to accept an invitation to meet his new Tranche. There, he meets a group of people that feel more than familiar — Adam would say they share Tau Telepathy. For the first time in his life, Adam feels like he has a family that accepts him. Within a few years, Adam will have distanced himself from his family and will have invested everything in his Tau community.
However, in that same span, the Affinities will become politically and financially powerful, and while the members of an Affinity excel at cooperating with one another, the Affinities themselves don’t always get along so well. (If anything, they lose their ability to empathize with anyone outside of their Affinity.) Soon, the Taus find themselves in violent conflict with the Hets.
I found The Affinities fascinating, and for a variety of reasons. Personally, I’ve often wondered what limiting factors explain whether I like or get along with the people I meet. Sometimes I feel like I can tell immediately if I will get along with someone, but experience has taught me to give others the benefit of the doubt, and time. So Adam’s immediate connection with swaths of strangers felt more like a fantasy than a realistic structure for forming relationships. Relationships, in my experience, require dedication and work as much as they require compatibility. And, to some extent, I was skeptical of the affinities test and of the Affinities themselves. Once I quieted these doubts, the novel was much more enjoyable.
Still, do we really enjoy spending time with people that are like us? I recall when my coworkers and I once took a Myers-Briggs test. I learned that I was the only person with my personality on my staff, but I’d made friends with other personality types. I also learned that I couldn’t map out the friendships and rivalries around me using the test results. Also, I’ve often felt that Jung was right to point out that we dislike people that remind us too strongly of our weaknesses and we feel a need to compete against others that remind us of our strengths. I’ve also encountered studies confirming that diverse groups tend to make better decisions than homogenous groups. And don’t opposites attract?
On the other hand, I’ve also seen studies that people are often attracted to mates that look similar to them. In fact, I’ve met more than one couple that could pass as siblings. It seems that people have begun to marry within their income bracket more in recent years.
Regardless, Wilson must have tapped into the Zeitgeist because whenever I shared the premise of The Affinities with others, they were instantly intrigued. Religious folk are interested in the idea of a community that is not centered around a church. Social studies teachers are curious about a test that would allow empathy and compassionate action to transcend age, ethnicity, and nationality. And parents worry about a new form of community that undermines family ties. After all, what happens to families when there’s a new group of people that have to take you in when you have nowhere else to go?
The Affinities lacks aliens and interplanetary travel, but it’s clearly a Robert Charles Wilson novel. First, The Affinities takes an interesting idea from a localized immediate experience to one that has the potential to alter the course of humanity. Second, the characters are immediately interesting without being so complex that their lives will distract from the consequences of these Big Ideas. Third, Wilson takes readers from the mundane to a surreal future in just 300 pages. Regardless, while The Affinities is recognizably a Robert Charles Wilson novel, it’s still full of surprises. I was hooked from start to finish.
The Affinities will be released on April 21, 2015. Robert Charles Wilson will be here at noon EST to chat with me that day and he’s got a copy of The Affinities to give away to one of our readers.