The Affinities by Robert Charles WIlson – review

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There are some authors whose books I can’t wait to get. Tim Powers is one: I will always pre-order the hardback and re-read it many times. Robert Charles Wilson is another. So when the (US) hardback landed on my doormat, I set A Song of Ice and Fire book 4 aside and ploughed through this in a couple of days. I will doubtless read this again in a year and enjoy it as much, or more, as I did this first time.

Since the publication of his extraordinary literary SF novel Spin (2005), RCW’s reputation has been high. He’s prolific too, which is a blessing. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was reading his last novel, Burning Paradise (2013, in fact). Just as Tim Powers’ main protagonist is (often, not always) a hapless (sometimes wounded) innocent caught up in events beyond his kind, RCW’s protagonist is (often, not always) a somewhat detached outsider who finds (usually) himself caught up in momentous, world-changing events, often involving the technological sublime (that which Arthur C Clarke said was indistinguishable from magic).

The Affinities follows this pattern. We already live in a world governed by algorithms. We get (sometimes not very good) music and movie and book recommendations from them; many people sign up to dating sites and apps that try to match people up using them; the financial system is dominated by them; the security services surely rely on them; Twitter and Facebook suggest who we ought to be following/friending based on them. Algorithms are everywhere. What if, asks The Affinities, someone designed an algorithm so effective and accurate that it could put people together into mutual interest groups that could become a powerful replacement for family, alumni association, old boy’s network, whatever?

Our hero, disdained by most of his own family, takes the test and finds himself a member of one of the largest affinity groups, Tau. His problems fall away. He finds work, accommodation, friendship, love. He is constantly expected to put his affinity associations ahead of his other relationships. Affinities seem stronger than blood, stronger than the nation state. But what happens when these groups become so large and so powerful that their only true rivals are other groups, other affinities?

So our hero finds himself caught up in events which spiral out of control and test his loyalties.

This is good: beautifully written (as ever), fast-paced, fascinating. My one complaint is that it seems a bit short. I’ve been reading George R R Martin, so maybe it’s a problem of perception, but I wanted more, much more. I wanted more time away from A Song of Ice and Fire. I might have to go and re-read The Chronoliths. Again.

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