Book Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

The AffinitiesThe Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tor (April 21, 2015)

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

My thoughts on The Affinities in a nutshell: Loved loved loved the idea, but not so keen on the execution. Social science fiction is an enjoyable subgenre for me, but when the socio-political part of that equation gets lost in the narrative, I confess having trouble getting into the story. Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting themes in here, many of which can be gleaned from the general description of the novel itself.

The book begins with an introduction to our narrator, Adam Fisk. At loose ends with his life and career, one day he decides to sign up for Affinity testing, the newfangled social phenomenon that has taken the continent by storm. That decision will change his life forever. Adam’s results ends up qualifying him for entrance into the Tau Affinity, one of twenty-two exclusive social groups whose membership is determined by a complex battery of personality tests. Tau becomes Adam’s new family. His fellow members don’t need to know him to understand him or to be his friend; they’re all Tau too. It’s “Tau telepathy”, everybody just gets everybody else.

Yet as the years go by and Affinities become more entrenched in our societies, new problems start to manifest themselves. The people in the twenty-two Affinities are happy with their new friends and new lives, but what of the people who don’t want to join an Affinity or whose tests don’t qualify them for any of them? And because members within an Affinity are so adept at working with each other, it is inevitable that the bigger and more influential Affinities begin to accumulate real political and financial power – Affinities like Tau and Het, whose differences eventually lead them to war against each other.

It’s all very fascinating, and indeed, I enjoyed the first hundred pages or so of the book immensely. Alas, around the halfway mark is when things started unraveling. While I liked the concept of Affinities, we don’t get near enough of the science or technology behind it. I felt like I was expected to just roll with the punches, ignore the implausibilities and just move on, so to speak. Which would have been fine with me if the story had been more satisfying on the social commentary front. But it wasn’t either, not particularly. With regards to the book’s topics, it felt like the author was biting off more than he could chew, resulting in limited implementation of the main idea when its potential in fact demands so much more. While reading The Affinities, I frequently caught the sense of the story crying out, begging to be a lot bigger, but it nonetheless fails to break out of the superficial plot that confines it.

Granted, writing stories that explore human behavior is always tricky. What Wilson endeavored to do here is admirable, but in the end I think the concept he put forward was treated too simplistically. Perhaps this is because we only focus on a single affinity, Tau, and didn’t get to see much of what happens within the others. I didn’t feel much of the “affinity-sympathy” between members of Tau, and instead felt more of the differences between the people associated with Affinities versus those who were not. The first group unfortunately came across as a bunch of insouciant, promiscuous pot-smoking shallow snobs, while those against the Affinities were portrayed as stuffy, bigoted, corporate-machine-loving ignorant right-wingers (most notably illustrated by Adam’s family). I don’t think this was the point of the novel, but that was a strong impression it gave off. Our main protagonist is neither of these two extremes but ends up being a rather passive entity caught in the middle, which in some ways made his character even more irksome.

Perhaps what excited me most about this novel was its setting. Toronto is my hometown and I loved that Robert Charles Wilson (who resides there) did it plenty of justice by illustrating what a vibrant city it is, made up of diverse neighborhoods filled with diverse people. It is also Canada’s largest city and economic powerhouse. Arguably, its qualities make it the perfect milieu for stories like The Affinities to take place, because it has all the necessary ingredients.

In the end, I don’t want to sound overly critical or make you think that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did. There is a very interesting story here; when I wasn’t frustrated by it, I actually really liked it,. Notably, the plot picked up again in Part Three as Tau wages war with their rival, Het Affinity. It becomes a more direct and intimate story at that point, bringing suspense and even a few thrills into the picture. Unfortunately though, whatever comment this book hoped to make about society was lost in the hustle and bustle. Still, there are many things this book does right, and it’s worth reading.

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15 Comments on “Book Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson”

  1. Yeah, not really feeling this one by the sounds of it. Nice that it was based in your home town though – it’s great reading a book set in a place you know.
    Lynn 😀

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    • Yeah that was pretty neat. The beginning starts with the protagonist running into a demonstration gone violent, and many of the protesters were there because of a University of Toronto tuition hike…which sounds familiar, as that was the college I went to! XD

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  2. Sounds like an interesting concept, too bad it didn’t pan out well. :/ I hate to draw the comparison, but it sounds like a more thought out version of Divergent. Without the post apocalypse and lack of career choices, of course.

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    • It does share that aspect with Divergent, and I had the same problem with that series too – when you start getting into ideas dealing with psychology and human behavior, things get complicated.

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  3. I know what exactly what you mean about a book having a great idea then failing on the execution. You keep reading and hoping that something will happen with that idea, but then when nothing does, it’s almost a disappointment. Doesn’t make books bad, you just see all that lost potential.
    What caught my attention was the concept of Affinities, as well. I still may give it a read though. It has my interest.

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    • Yes it’s still very much worth reading. I think it would have gone over better if I’d known what to expect. The story was actually quite good. There was definitely some lost potential there, but like you said, it doesn’t make it bad. 🙂

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  4. Yay for a Canadian setting! I’m not a Toronto girl myself, but pretty close. Is Wilson a Canadian author? May have to add him to my list…just not this particular title. It’s too bad that this one wasn’t a home run, but on to the next one I guess. 🙂

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    • The author info on the inside cover flap says RCW was born in California but moved to Toronto and it sounds like he’s been there for a while (and his knowledge of the city indicates that as well). You may want to check out his book SPIN then, it was a Hugo award winner in 2006! 🙂

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  5. I agree with MOGSY on not fleshing-out the non-Tau or NOTA (none-of-the-above) people, and for that I’d probably take off half a star. But I think this review misses the real point of the book, which is the downfall of tribalism — a social construct which can make ‘normal’ people behave like psychopaths towards non-members of their tribe. This is demonstrated throughout the book, especially at the end, as Tau behaves callously towards Adam when they find out that he’s no longer one of them. The Tau people view caring about non-tribe members as a flaw, when in fact it’s just part of normal, empathetic human behaviour. And ironically, when Tau thinks Adam is no longer ‘worthy’, is actually when he demonstrates that he’s a better human being than any one of them. 4 1/2 stars from me.

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