Plot Type: Near-Future Science Fiction
Ratings: Violence—3-4; Sensuality—3-4; Humor—2-3
That's how Adam Fisk feels when he loses his beloved grandmother, becomes estranged from his family, and faces a future with no college degree, no money, no job, and no prospects. It is at this point that Adam decides to take the Affinity tests designed by InterAlia, Inc., a private company. If Adam qualifies, he will be matched up with one of twenty-two Affinity groups, which are loosely woven, cooperative groups made up of uniquely compatible people. The Affinity process was designed by a scientific genius named Meir Klein, and it is based on a principle called “social teleodynamics,” which involves running data from DNA analysis, brain scans, and psychological tests through a social algorithm that automatically sorts 60% of the test-takers into groups of people guaranteed to get along and disqualifies the remaining 40%. Those who qualify receive an invitation to join one of the tranches for their assigned Affinity. The tranches are localized groups of 30 (no more, no less) that form each Affinity's base.
Adam's intake technician explains what will happen if Adam qualifies: "Assuming you’re placed in a tranche, you’ll find yourself in the company of people we call polycompatible. Some clients come in with the misconception that they’ll be placed among people who are like themselves, but that’s not the case. As a group, your tranche will most likely be physically, racially, socially, and psychologically diverse. Our evaluations look beyond race, gender, sexual preference, age, or national origin. Affinity groups aren’t about excluding differences. They’re about compatibilities that run deeper than superficial similarity. Among people of the same Affinity as yourself, you are statistically more likely to trust others, to be trusted, to make friends, to find partners, in general to have successful social engagements. Within your Affinity you will be misunderstood less often and you'll have an intuitive rapport with many of your tranchemates." This sounds like heaven to Adam, especially when he is notified that he qualifies for membership in Tau, one of the top five Affinities in the world.
The book follows Adam as he moves from one life-changing experience to another, beginning with the euphoria he feels when he is accepted by Tau. To illustrate the diversity of the tranches, at Adam's first Tau gathering, he is befriended by an elderly pair of wealthy lesbians, a gay nightclub bouncer with black Maori-type tattoos across his face, a beautiful female student from India, an activist law professor, and many others—doctors, lawyers, students, police officers, small-business owners, corporate leaders, and more. Here, Adam describes his reaction to that first gathering: "A kind of happy exhaustion eventually set in. I made more friends over the course of an evening than I had made in the last six months, and every connection seemed both authentic and potentially important—the escalation from hi-my-name-is to near-intimacy was dizzying. Even the conversations I overheard in passing tugged at my attention: I kept wanting to say yes, exactly! or me too! Eye contact felt like a burst of exchanged data. Maybe too much so. I wasn't used to it. Could anyone get used to it?…A small miracle had taken place: Somehow,…I had internalized the idea that I was among family—not the messy modus vivendi my [hometown] relations had arrived at, but family in a better and truer sense of the word."
The best part for Adam is that all of them are Taus, which means that all of them will help him in any way they can and he will do the same for them. Membership in an organization that cuts across economic, age, gender, and racial lines can come in very handy when you need a favor—almost any kind of favor. The Taus vow allegiance to one another, putting their Tau friends above their biological families and their non-Tau friends (both of which are scornfully called tethers).
Unfortunately, the 40% who are not selected for the Affinities and those who refuse to take the tests are left on the outside. Families fall apart when one or more members break away to join an Affinity. Outsiders (tethers) are not included in Affinity social gatherings, and as the Affinities grow larger and more complex, only members are allowed to participate in Affinity health-care plans, hedge funds, investment groups, retirement plans, and any other Affinity-related institution. As the Affinities grow from hundreds to thousands to millions of members, their resources threaten to outgrow and out-power those of the government. Late in the book, someone who has a new idea about social cooperation summarizes the problem: "The Affinities were an attempt to harness and enhance the human genius for collaboration. And they succeeded…for those who qualified for membership. But the Affinities are a tribal model. Twenty-two pocket utopias, each with an entrance fee. Twenty-two Edens, and every Eden with a wall around it and with a crowd of hostile, envious outsiders peering in."
Eventually, the government steps in and begins to pass laws to harness the Affinities' power. In the meantime, the top two Affinities—the stern, efficient, mono-hierarchical Hets and the laid-back, wealthy, poly-hierarchical Taus, go to war. As they vie for power, the world teeters on the brink of a nuclear war between India and China, which is one of the few countries that outlawed the Affinities. Then Meir Klein is murdered, and InterAlia goes bankrupt. As Het and Tau lobby the smaller Affinities for support, internal cooperation becomes predatory cooperation, and Adam is Tau's chief negotiator in those efforts. By this time, though, Adam's early euphoria has worn thin, and he is beginning to question his loyalties. (The Affinities call this "drifting.") When the Indo-Chinese situation goes horribly wrong and the power grid fails across the globe, Adam is forced to make yet another life-changing decision about who his family really is and where his loyalties truly lie.
Wilson is a great story teller who is adept at drawing well-developed characters and advancing his narrative in understated, but perfectly nuanced, dialogue and interior monologues. Adam's voice is pitch perfect: well-educated but colloquial; frequently serious but sometimes wry. After just a scene or two, we know all that we need to know about Adam's family: bullying father, favored older brother, suppressed step-mother, despondent step-brother, and a childhood sweetheart who no longer fits into Adam's life. Wilson characterizes the distinctive personalities of these characters and a few of Adam's Tau friends so well that we feel that we know them intimately.
I do want to say a word about Wilson's elegant narrative, in which he so beautifully describes the places that Adam passes through and so perfectly denotes the emotional roller coaster that is Adam's life. Here, Adam describes his hometown street one night as he heads home for a dreaded family dinner: "The windows of their houses glittered as if their wealth had been compressed into rectilinear slabs of golden light, and the houses seemed to promise ease, comfort, safety, all the consolations of family—though this was often false advertising." And here, Adam muses about what he would like to say (but doesn't) to his about-to-be-former girlfriend: "Like you, Jenny, I always figured there must be a place in the world for me. You know what I mean. Walking down some street on a winter night so cold your footsteps on the snowy sidewalk sound like glass being ground to sand, yellow light leaking from the windows of the houses of strangers, you catch a glimpse of some sublimely ordinary moment—a girl setting a table, a woman washing dishes, a man turning the pages of a newspaper—and you get the idea you could walk through the door of that house into a brand-new life, that the people inside would recognize and welcome you and you would realize it was a place you had always known and never really left…The thing is, Jenny, there really is a door like that. There really is a house full of kind and generous voices. It exists, and I was lucky enough to find it. And that's why I can't come home and marry you." Such a concisely perfect rendition of Adam's earnest need to explain why he must leave Jenny behind.
This is a terrific book that pulls you into a story that will leave you in a contemplative mood long after you finish it. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were truly possible for everyone to find that "bright window on a cold night"?