The World’s Young: a review of Robert Charles Wilson’s THE AFFINITIES

Robert Charles Wilson’s THE AFFINITIES is ‘social’ science fiction in the most literal sense. (I seem to recall how Isaac Asimov made the distinction between hard SF, social SF, and social satire – the latter being Huxley, Orwell, and the like – though I may be misremembering this, since I can’t find a reference to this triplet anywhere just now, either in print or online.)

The book is about a very near-future social-networking option, run by an organization called InterAlia, which conducts various tests to classify applicants into one of 22 ‘affinities’, groups of like-minded people. It’s not a dating service, and Wilson perhaps conspicuously avoids comparing these classifications to Myers-Briggs or any similar psychological testing options.

The early chapters depict Adam Fish, a Toronto graphic artist, who applies to InterAlia and is assigned to the Tau tranche. (Affinity groups are named after 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet.) His loose social connections, his discomfort with members of his family in Schuyler NY, his chats with autistic step-brother Geddy, illustrate his need (and Geddy’s need) for some new kind of social connections. And when he attends his first meeting of fellow Taus, he feels an instant psychological resonance, an intuitive sense of common understanding and trust. And one of the people he meets gives him a job.

Part II: Seven years later, Adam is involved with affinity politics, as a movement grows to liberate the technology of the tests from the company InterAlia, as the inventor Meir Klein has quit and is subsequently murdered, and as a rival group, the Hets, seem to be challenging the Taus for political dominance, perhaps to the point of murder.

Part III: And four years after that, a political threat to the affinities is interrupted by a conflict – effectively, if obviously, foreshadowed – between Pakistan and India that brings down the internet and power infrastructure around the entire world. [I’m reminded of how the plots of so many traditional horror and thriller films would be undermined if only the characters had cellphones. This development removes cellphones from how the plot might otherwise play out.]

And the book ends with various plot resolutions and the recognition that things will keep changing.

This book resonates with my current preoccupations about big issues much more so than I had expected. It’s about humanity’s problems in the 21st century and ways they might be addressed. Wilson recognizes the issue, and the context, p26b:

We’re the most cooperative species on the planet — is there anything you own that you built entirely with your own hands, from materials you extracted from nature all by yourself? And without that network of cooperation we’re as vulnerable as three-legged antelopes in lion territory. But at the same time: what a talent we have for greed, for moral indifference, for wars of conquest on every scale from kindergarten to the U.N. Who hasn’t longed for a way out of that bind? It’s as if we were designed fro life in some storybook family, in a house where the doors are never locked never need to be. Every half-baked utopia is a dream of that house. We want it so badly we refuse to believe it doesn’t or can’t exist.

And, p140, about the issues facing humanity in the 21st century.

The problems confronting us are the obvious ones – climate change, resource competition, population stress, and all the human conflicts arising from those problems. What makes these questions especially difficult is that they cannot be dealt with comprehensively by individual action. We need to act collectively, on a global scale. But we have very limited means of doing that. We are a collaborative species, the most successful such species on the planet, but we collaborate as individuals, for mutual gain, under systems established to promote and protect such collaboration. Our global economic and social behavior is largely unconstrained. Which means that, under certain circumstances, it can run away with us. It can carry us all unwilling into the land of unforeseen consequences.

And, Rebecca on the arc of human history, and how New Socionome will succeed the affinities:

Our algorithms of connection favor non-zero-sum transactions, as the Affinities do, but they also facilitate long-term panhuman goals: prosperity, peace, fairness, sustainability. The arc of human history is long but our algorithms bend toward justice. We aren’t just falling. We’re FALLING FORWARD.

At the beginning of Part III, Adam talks with the autistic Geddy, who asks, “Is the world old or is it young?”.

It’s like, is everything all used up? Is history almost over? Or is it just getting started?

And then, movingly, a late passage, p291, Geddy answers his own question:

The Affinities were, like, the Model T of socionomic structures. We’re building better ones! Evolutionary algorithms to enhance non-zero-sum exchanges of all kinds! A way to address the big problems! … The world’s young! We’re at the beginning of something, and it’s big, and it’s scary, but in the end it might be– Beautiful!

Here is the essence of the progressive optimism of science fiction. And here is how, weirdly, this book echoes Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series: both are about attempts to analyze human psychology in order to anticipate history, avoid human calamities, and drive history toward long-term benefits.

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