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August 4, 2015

The SPOILER Affinities
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:05 PM * 4 comments

As requested, a space where folks can discuss Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities without having to mask or avoid spoilers.


Comments on The SPOILER Affinities:
#1 ::: Jim Parish ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2015, 07:01 PM:

Well, if nobody else is going to start....

I found the concept of the Affinities appealing, but almost from the start there were red flags. First, the exclusivity: various Taus, most notably Amanda, denigrated out-of-affinity linkages (the word "tether" particularly stuck in my craw). Second, the fact that a substantial part of the population didn't fit any of the Affinities (was it a majority? I couldn't tell) was trouble waiting to happen. Third, the possibility of "drift": to the extent that the Affinities were paradisal for their members, the possibility of expulsion was hellish.

But what really soured me on them - what shifted them from "flawed" to "poisonous" - was the revelation at the end that the Taus were already set to expel Adam, but withheld that knowledge from him so that they could use them in the current crisis.

There's a section in Seymour Martin Lipset's Political Man where he asserts that one of the danger signs for a polity is when the various social cleavages begin to align with one another instead of cross-cutting - he points to the period just before the U.S. Civil War, with its sectional splits of churches, political parties, and other institutions; the Affinities had that built in.

I'm not sure that anything like Affinities can actually avoid those difficulties. The alternative concept proposed at the end wasn't clearly enough expounded for me to tell.

Great story, though; it'll be on my Hugo nomination list for next year.

#2 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2015, 08:03 PM:

"Third, the possibility of 'drift': to the extent that the Affinities were paradisal for their members, the possibility of expulsion was hellish."

Yeah, that was a red flag pretty early in the book. I found it interesting to compare the group criteria with the ideas in the Geek Social Fallacies, and how they went all-in with some and diametrically opposite to others. In particular, it seemed like they tried to make the "Friendship is transitive" idea come true, by selecting a group so like-minded that everyone *was* 'friends' with everyone else within-group-- but did it by fully embracing "ostracism" in a rigid cutoff between in-group and out-group.

A bit more seriously, the contrast between how Taus treated fellow Taus and others was stark. I like that Wilson didn't take the cartoon-villain route and have Taus treat outsiders *explicitly* as inferiors, or as enemies (with the exception of certain specific groups). It's more that they didn't think much about outsiders as more than undifferentiated Others. Others that they like to think of themselves as caring about-- Taus embrace the idea that they're helping save the world, after all-- but that they don't actually seem to be doing much for, as far as the reader can see. And if there's a conflict between the needs of outsiders and the needs of the group, well of course one sides with the group. It becomes clearer as the book progresses how much that priority is expected to override everything else.

I think about some of the more privileged groups I happen to be in, as a fairly well-off white American male who works at a prestigious university. Most people like me, if you ask us, will say that of course they want to improve the world, and the people in it. But how often, when there's a conflict between making people like ourselves better off and making others better off, do we make the less comfortable choice?

#3 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2015, 01:15 PM:

This is, to my mind, a nice piece of sociological sf, with a relatively low level of plausibility. At the back of my mind there kept niggling the question of how, exactly, this complex bit of social psychology could actually work in the 'real' world and I couldn't see it.

#4 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2015, 06:21 AM:

I wasn't all that excited by the cover copy for this, but then I wasn't really blown away by the idea of _Julian Comstock_ either, and that won me over. This wasn't as successful for me, alas.

I think the problem is that in the absence of an actual Grand Unified Theory of human social dynamics, it's really hard to actually nail down the characteristics that would define one of these groups, and portray them in a way that makes the affinity between groups feel natural. So, instead, you get a lot of Adam telling you how wonderful it felt to be part of Tau. Which as you know, Bob, weakens the emotional impact for the reader.

Put that together with the core implausibility of the central conceit, as Fragano notes, and this was much less successful for me than most of Wilson's stuff. Not bad, but not as engaging as I would've liked.

The ending was also a bit odd, with the alternative organization sketched too quickly to really get much across. The giant power outage thing being left unexplained also felt weird. Is there a sequel in the works, perchance? Both of those sort of feel like hints toward a longer, larger story.

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