/ Cory Doctorow / 8 am Thu, Aug 6 2015
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  • Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities: when science changes everything

    Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities: when science changes everything

    Amara's Law states, "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run" -- Robert Charles Wilson's gripping conspiracy novel The Affinities brings the experience of that process to life.

    It starts with "sociodynamics," a proprietary "scientific" process by which your psyche, genome and other traits are measured and categorized. If you're lucky, you fit into one of 22 major categories, the affinities. If you're not lucky, well, it's not an indictment of you or anything, but I'm afraid you're out of luck.

    Being in an affinity is amazing. The affinities share an outlook and point of view, and have an instant rapport with one another. You feel it the first time you attend a tranche meeting -- a meeting of 30 local affinity-members, created and managed by Interalia, who own the affinity-grouping technology. The human race's oldest problem is cooperation: working together to get more done than any of us could get done on our own. Affinities are literally superhuman: they can do more than any one human could do for herself, with less arguing, fuss and cross-purposes than any other groups in human history.



    Adam Fisk never fit in. His bullying, overbearing jerk of a father has always made it clear that he was not much of a Fisk, not like his brother, who has all the requisite cruelty and bluntness. At least Adam has it better than his step-brother, a dreamy, not-altogether-there kid who is the goat of both his dad and his brother. At the first possible opportunity, Adam lights out of his small upstate New York hometown and heads to art school in Toronto, living off money from his unconventional grandmother.

    When his grandmother dies suddenly, Adam's financial support dies with her. Now he has to decide: go back to his father and the awful life he's turned his back on, or find some way to stay in the big city and make a new life. He scrapes together the money for an affinity test and heads to a local Interalia office.

    So it is that Adam is sorted into the Tau, the largest (and soon, most powerful) of all the affinities. Interalia functions as a kind of Sorting Hat for the affinities, and the affinities are something like the Hogwarts houses, except even more so. Affinity members are instantly and deeply loyal to one another. Affinity doctors and counsellors can work with their affinitymates with incredible efficacy; affinity bosses and employees find it easy to get along, as do affinity co-workers. Affinities are powerful political organizations, and Tau, in particular, has great, coordinated financial acumen, and its affinity-only investment service offers incredible returns to Taus with some money to invest.

    The affinities are on an obvious collision course with Interalia. Affinity membership is an all-consuming identity, but it's completely dependent on this giant, dumb, lumbering corporation that sees your identity as a thing to monetize. It's an intolerable situation. As the affinities grow in wealth and influence, Interalia is more and more in its crosshairs -- and Interalia itself grows more desperate.

    I'm getting into spoiler territory here, so I'm going to stop summarizing the plot and start talking about Wilson's moves.

    The secret of Internet hype, since its earliest days, is the incredible, tribal rush of finding people who are weird like you to socialize with. There's an inescapable joy, a deep brain reward, to socializing with people you find congenial. The Internet has made it unprecendentedly cheap and easy to find people who want to do the same stuff as you -- it's the reason we have modern fandom, tribal politics, ISIS, crowdfunding, free software, Internet shaming mobs and so many dating services.

    Wilson's story captures that rush at a deep and visceral level -- the giddy optimism, the thrill of power. He also chronicles the ways that these communities chafe at the institutions that own and control them -- think of Reddit's war against offensive subreddits; online fandoms organizing around political causes, and the Net Neutrality fights against the biggest ISPs in the world.

    Next, he scales the fight up, to talk about how national governments and mega-corporations address these new, powerful non-state actors. Think of Russia's crackdown on NGOs or the American financial establishment's response to crypto-currencies.

    But then, just when you think you know where he's going, he pulls a screeching U-turn and asks whether the science is sound. After all, how likely is it that a new technology gets it right first time out of the gate? If there's 22 ways to organize affinities, what if there're more? Subtler ways. Better ways. Ways that threaten the affinities themselves.

    The affinities posits a multipolar future where conflict occurs at every level, as technology exerts profound stresses on the social status quo, without ever giving us any easy answers. As with all of Wilson's books, it's also a snappy, happening adventure story (see, e.g., Julian Comstock). It's a prescient novel that predicts the future with eerie precision. A must-read for the 2010s.


    The Affinities [Robert Charles Wilson/Tor Books]

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