In our rapidly-changing world of "social media", everyday people are more and more able to sort themselves into social groups based on finer and finer criteria. In the near future of Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities, this process is supercharged by new analytic technologiesgenetic, brain-mapping, behavioral. To join one of the twenty-two Affinities is to change one's life. It's like family, and more than family. Your fellow members aren't just like you, and they aren't just people who are likely to like you. They're also the people with whom you can best cooperate in all areas of lifecreative, interpersonal, even financial.
At loose ends both professional and personal, young Adam Fisk takes the suite of tests to see if he qualifies for any of the Affinities, and finds that he's a match for one of the largest, the one called Tau. It's utopianat first. Problems in all areas of his life begin to simply sort themselves out, as he becomes part of a global network of people dedicated to helping one anotherto helping him.
But as the differing Affinities put their new powers to the test, they begin to rapidly chip away at the power of governments, of global corporations, of all the institutions of the old world. Then, with dreadful inevitability, the different Affinities begin to go to warwith one another.
What happens next will change Adam, and his world, forever.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Born in California, ROBERT CHARLES WILSON grew up in Canada. He is the author of many acclaimed science fiction novels, including Darwinia, Blind Lake, Julian Comstock, Burning Paradise and the Hugo Award–winning Spin.
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By Robert Charles Wilson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Robert Charles Wilson
All rights reserved.
I made the decision when I saw the blood in the mirror. The blood was what changed my mind.
I had thought about it, of course. I had clipped the ad out of the back pages of the local entertainment paper, checked out the website, memorized the address of the local test center. I had strolled past the building earlier that afternoon, lingering at the brass-and-frosted-glass door with what I tried to pass off (not least, to myself) as idle curiosity. I pictured myself stepping into the cool, dim lobby behind the InterAlia logo and maybe changing the course of my life forever, but in the end I shrugged and walked on—a failure of courage, the better part of valor, I honestly couldn't say which.
Tempted as I was, opening that door would have seemed like a confession of my own inadequacy, a confession I wasn't prepared to make.
The sight of my own bloody face changed my mind.
* * *
I walked south from the InterAlia building, on my way to meet my ex-roommate Dex at the ferry docks: we had made plans to ride over to the Toronto Islands for an open-air concert. What I didn't know, because I had been too self-absorbed to pay attention to the news, was that a large-scale demo was going on in the city's financial district, directly between me and the lakeshore.
The sound of it reached me first. It was like the sound you hear from an open-air sports stadium when there's a game on: no discernible content, just the undulant buzz of massed human voices. A couple of blocks later, I thought: angry voices. Maybe a bullhorn or two in the mix. And then I turned a corner and saw it. A mass of protestors filling the street in either direction and about as easy to cross as a raging river. Bad news, because dithering at the door of the InterAlia office had already made me late.
The crowd appeared to be a mix of students and academics and labor union people, and according to their banners it was the new debt laws and a massive University of Toronto tuition hike that had brought them to the streets on a hot late-May evening. A block to the west, where the sky still smoldered with sunset, some kind of serious altercation had begun. Everyone was staring that way, and I guessed the sour tang in the air was a promissory drift of tear gas. But at that moment all I wanted was to get to the waterfront, where the air might be a degree or two cooler, and meet Dex, annoyed with me though he must already be. So I pushed east to the nearest intersection and tried to shoulder through the thick of the crowd at the crosswalk. Bad decision, and I knew it as soon as I was caught in the tidal bore of human flesh. Before I had made much progress, some new threat or obstruction forced everyone closer together.
By craning my head—I'm fairly tall—I caught a glimpse of police in riot gear advancing from the west, beating their sticks on their shields. Tear gas canisters arced into the crowd, trailing smoke, and a woman to the right of me pulled a bandanna over her nose and mouth. A yard from where I stood, a guy in a faded Propaghandi t-shirt climbed onto the roof of a parked car and tossed a Dasani bottle at the cops. I tried to turn back, but it had become impossible to make headway against the pressure of bodies.
A skirmish line of mounted police appeared at the adjoining intersection, and I began to realize it was actually possible that, worst case, I could be kettled into a mass arrest and carted off to a detention cell. (And who would I call, if that happened? My family in New York State would be shocked and angry that I had been arrested; my few friends in the city were hapless art-school types, in no position to post bail.) The crowd lurched eastward, and I tried to veer toward the nearest sidewalk. I took some elbows to the ribs but managed to reach the north side of the street. The building immediately in front of me was a café, locked and barred, but there was a set of concrete steps descending to a second storefront just below ground level—also barred, but I found a place to crouch in the overhang of the concrete stairwell.
I kept my eyes pressed shut against the drifting tear gas, so what little I saw, I saw in blurry glimpses: mostly moving legs at street level, once the face of a woman who had fallen, eyes wide and mouth in a panicked O, as she struggled to stand up. I covered my own mouth with my t-shirt and breathed in gulps as another round of tear gas drifted down from the street. The roar of voices gave way to random screams, the industrial stomp of the police line. Mounted cops passed the niche where I had hidden, a weird chorus line of horse legs.
I had begun to think I was safe when a cop in riot gear came down the steps and found me squatting in the shadows. His face was plainly visible behind the scuffed plastic faceguard of his helmet. A guy not much older than me, maybe one of the foot police who had been roughed up in the struggle. He looked almost as scared as the woman who had fallen a few minutes earlier: the same big, jittery eyes. But angry, too.
I held out my hands in a hey, wait gesture. "I'm not one of them," I said.
I'm not one of them. It was possibly the most cowardly thing I could have said, though it was also perfectly true. It was practically my fucking mantra. I should have had it tattooed on my forehead.
The cop swung his club. Maybe all he intended was a motivating blow to my shoulder, but the club bounced up and hit the left side of my face across the ridge of the cheekbone. I felt the skin break. A hot numbness that bloomed into pain.
Even the cop seemed startled. "Get the fuck out of here," he said. "Go!"
I stumbled up the stairs. The street was almost unrecognizable. I was behind the parade line of cops, who had encircled a body of protestors east of the intersection. The block where I stood was empty except for a litter of paper handouts, abandoned backpacks and banners, the still-sizzling husks of tear gas canisters, and the granular glass of broken windshields. A block to the west, someone's car was on fire. Blood from my face had begun to decorate my shirt in rust-red paisleys. I held my hand against the cut, and blood like warm oil seeped through my fingers.
I turned the nearest corner. I passed another cop, a woman, not in riot gear, who gave me a concerned look and seemed about to ask whether I needed help—I waved her away. I took my phone out of my pocket and tried to call Dex, but he didn't answer. I guessed he had written me off as a no-show. At University Avenue I stumbled into a subway entrance and caught a train, fending off expressions of concern from other passengers. All I wanted was to be alone in some sheltered place.
The bleeding had mostly stopped by the time I made it home. Home was a bachelor apartment on the third floor of a yellow brick low-rise with a parking lot view. Cheap parquet floors and a few crappy items of furniture. The most personal thing about it was the name on the call-board in the lobby: A. Fisk. A for Adam. The other A. Fisk in the family was my brother Aaron. Our mother had been a committed Bible reader with a taste for alliteration.
The bathroom mirror doubled as the door of the medicine cabinet. I fumbled out a bottle of Advil, closed the door, and stared at myself. I guessed I could get by without stitches. The cut had clotted, though it looked fairly gory. The bruise would be with me for days.
Blood on my face, my hands, my shirt. Blood pinking the water in the basin of the sink.
That was when I knew I was going to call InterAlia. What was there to lose? Book an appointment. Open that brass-and-glass door. And find what?
One more scam, most likely.
Or, just maybe, some new and different version of them. A them I could be one of.
* * *
They gave me an appointment for Tuesday after classes. I showed up ten minutes early.
Behind the door, past the tiled lobby of the remodeled two-story building, the local branch of InterAlia was a suite of cubicles divided by glass-brick walls. Cool air whispered from ceiling vents and a polarized window admitted amber-tinted sunlight. There was a steady in-and-out traffic of people, some in business clothes and some in street clothes. Nothing distinguished the employees from their clients but the embossed lapel badges they wore. A receptionist checked my name against an appointment list and directed me to cubicle nine: "Miriam will do your intake today."
Miriam turned out to be a thirtyish woman with a ready smile and a faint Caribbean accent. She thanked me for my interest in InterAlia and asked me how much I knew about Affinity testing.
"I read the website pretty carefully," I said. "And that article in The Atlantic a couple of months ago."
"Then you probably know most of what I'm going to tell you, but it's my job to make sure potential clients are aware of how we do placements and what's expected of them. Some people come in with misconceptions, and we want to correct them up front. So bear with me, and I'll try not to bore you." Smile.
I smiled back and didn't interrupt her monologue, which I figured was the verbal equivalent of those caveats in microprint at the bottom of pharmaceutical advertisements.
"First off," she said, "you need to know we can't guarantee you a placement. What we offer is a series of tests that will tell us whether you're compatible with any of the twenty-two Affinity groups. We ask for a small deposit up front, which will be refunded if you don't qualify. A little more than sixty percent of applicants ultimately do qualify, so your chances are better than even—but we still end up turning away four of every ten, so that's a real possibility. Do you understand?"
I said I did.
"We also like to remind our clients that failing to qualify isn't any kind of value judgment. We're looking for certain clusters of complex social traits, but everyone is unique. There's nothing wrong with you if you fall outside those parameters; all it means is that we're unable to provide our particular service. All right?"
"You also need to be clear on what we're offering if you do qualify. First off, we're not a dating service. Many people have found partners through their Affinity, but that's absolutely not a guaranteed outcome. Sometimes people come to us because they're in trouble, socially or psychologically. Such people may or may not need therapeutic attention, but that's also not the business we're in."
As she said this she glanced pointedly at the bandage I was wearing. I said, "This isn't—I mean, I don't go around getting into fights or anything. I just—"
"None of my business, Mr. Fisk. You'll be evaluated by professionals, and the tests, both physical and psychological, are completely objective. No one is standing in judgment of you."
"Should you qualify, you'll be placed in one of the twenty-two Affinities and offered an invitation to join a local group, called a tranche. Each Affinity has regional and local subdivisions—the regional groups are called sodalities, and the locals are called tranches. A tranche has a maximum of thirty members. As soon as one is filled, we initiate a new group. You might be assigned as a replacement to an existing group or as part of a new tranche—either way, there might be a waiting period before you're placed. Currently the average is two or three weeks following assessment. Got it?"
"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. Understood?"
"Again, your deposit will be refunded in full if we fail to place you. But the testing requires a commitment of your time, which we can't refund. You'll have to attend five test sessions of at least two hours each, which we can book to suit your schedule—five consecutive evenings, once a week for five weeks, or any other sequence that suits you." She turned to the monitor on her desk and tapped a few keys. "You've already filled out the online form, so that's fine. What we need from you now, if you choose to proceed, is a valid credit or debit card and your signature on this consent form." She took a single sheet from a drawer and slid it to me. "You'll also need to show me a piece of government-issued photo ID. A nurse will take a blood sample before you leave."
"One now, so we can commence basic DNA sequencing, and one at each session for a drug assay. Apart from bloodwork, all our tests are non-invasive—but the results will be useless if you come in under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicants, so we do have to test. Results are completely confidential, of course. Clients taking prescription medication need to make us aware of it at this point, but according to your application you don't fall into that category."
The only drugs I had been taking lately were over-the-counter painkillers, so I nodded.
"All right then. Take your time and read through the agreement carefully before you sign it. I'll step out for a cup of coffee while you do that, if you'll excuse me—would you like a cup?"
"Please," I said.
The logo at the top of the agreement form—
Finding Yourself Among Others
—was the most comprehensible part of it; all else was legal boilerplate, mostly above my pay grade. But I set myself to the task of reading it. I was about finished when Miriam came back. "Any questions?"
"Just one. It says that the result of my tests becomes the property of the corporation?"
"The result, yes, but only after your name and other identifiers have been stripped from it. That lets us use the data to evaluate our client base and maybe focus our research a little better. We don't sell or share the information we collect."
So she claimed. Also, the check is in the mail and I'll pull out before I come. But I didn't really care who saw my test result. "I guess that's all right."
Miriam pushed a pen across the desk. I signed and dated the document. She smiled again.
* * *
Dex called me later that night. I saw his number and thought about letting the call go to voice mail, but picked up instead.
"Adam!" he said. "What are you doing?"
"What, like porn?"
"Some reality show."
"Yeah, I bet it's porn."
"It's a show with alligators in it. I don't watch alligator porn."
"Uh-huh. So what happened the other night?"
"I texted you about it."
"That bullshit about a demo? I almost missed the ferry, waiting for you."
"I'm lucky I didn't end up in the emergency room."
"You couldn't just take the subway?"
"I was almost there, and I was already late, so—"
"You were already late —that says it all, doesn't it?"
I had shared my apartment with Dex for six months last year. We took some of the same classes at Sheridan College. The roommate thing didn't work out. When he moved, he left his bong and his cat behind. He eventually came back for the bong. I gave the cat to the retired librarian in the apartment down the hall—she seemed grateful. "Thank you for your compassion."
"I could come over. We could watch a movie or something."
"I'm not in the mood."
"Come on, Adam. You owe me an evening's entertainment."
"Yeah ... no."
"You can't be a dick twice in one week."
"I'm pretty sure I can," I said.
* * *
Of course it wasn't Dex's fault that I was moody—not that Dex would ever admit that anything was his fault.
I figured I had a couple of good reasons for applying to the Affinities and a few bad ones. The fact that my social life revolved around a guy like Dex was one of the good ones. A bad one? The idea that I could buy a better life for a couple of hundred dollars and a battery of psych tests.
But I had done my research. I wasn't totally naïve. I knew a few things about the Affinities.
I knew the service had been commercially available for four years now. I knew it had gained popularity in the last year, after The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and BoingBoing ran feature articles about it. I knew it was the brainchild of Meir Klein, an Israeli teleodynamicist who had ditched a successful academic career to work for the corporation. I knew there were twenty-two major and minor Affinity groups, each named after a letter of the Phoenician alphabet, the "big five" being Bet, Zai, Het, Semk, and Tau.
What I didn't know was how the evaluation process actually worked, apart from the generalities I had read online.
Fortunately I had a talkative tester ... who turned out to be Miriam, the woman who had done my initial intake. She grinned like an old friend when I showed up for the first session. I recognized the smile as customer relations, but I was still grateful for it. I wondered whether Miriam was a member of an Affinity.
Excerpted from The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson. Copyright © 2015 Robert Charles Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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