Robert Charles Wilson
Sunburst Finalist 2016
The Affinities has an intriguing core idea: what if we could take an elaborate personality test that then connected us to our ideal ‘made family’? Think of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, writ large, but with more sex and pot-smoking…so like college, maybe…?
Yeah, I liked this idea of a utopian made family a lot.
When we first meet our narrator, Adam Fisk, he’s in graphic design/art school. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, isn’t really sure what he’s doing with his life, and has an unfortunate tendency to get caught up in random events that don’t work out in his favor. After one such incident, Adam decides to spend the money to sign-up for the elaborate Affinity test. There are twenty-two Affinities—all named after the letters in the Phoenician alphabet—and Adam ends up in Tau, one of the more influential, well-known ones. A few weeks later, Adam gets an invite to a mixer.
His life instantly gets better.
This is the part of the novel I was the most fascinated by. I loved hanging out in the sprawling Victorian house owned by the doting, care-taking lesbians. The descriptions of the conversations, the “Tau telepathy,” the easy way everyone has of falling in and out of bed… it’s all very cool.
But almost right away you sense that this isn’t as ideal as it should be. The awesomeness of having influential and interconnected friends stops feeling like that one great party with the philosophy majors where everyone got high on the roof of the science building and watched shooting stars all night, and quickly morphs into “crap I woke up in the fraternity house having somehow sold my soul.”
Subtly, we see Adam being more indifferent to the world outside of Tau-land. Oh, he’s still paying attention to the politics, but the people have stopped mattering. He gets involved with a non-Tau, an outsider that insiders refer to as a “teether,” and… fails to connect in a meaningful way. In fact, he uses her to get information for his Affinity.
Things sort of go downhill from there. Adam becomes more and more a tool for his Affinity and much less interesting or sympathetic as a person. By the end, I’m just glad he doesn’t completely torpedo the one nice relationship he has with his blood family, his artistic (vaguely autistic) step-brother Geddy.
Adam’s downward spiral is probably meant to be a kind of cautionary tale about the dangerous of tailor-made social circles, but it reads like a jerk getting his comeuppance, the end.
No, it’s not even that satisfying, because Adam isn’t even that awful of a person, so you don’t really cheer for his downfall. Instead, he’s just sort of a wet blanket, who doesn’t ‘protag’ very much, and in the end is just as driftless and lost as he was at the start.
Yet, I found something in this book compelling. It might simply be that I’m fond of Wilson’s writing style. It was easy to fall into and be absorbed by. A lot of people seemed to really hate this book, but I ended up mostly feeling meh and thinking that maybe the book ended where it should have begun.