Monday, July 04, 2016

Quantum Affinities?

The Affinities / Robert Charles Wilson
New York: Tor, c2015.
300 p.

Adam is a young man when easily accessible testing becomes available that can help you sort yourself into an "affinity", a group of like-minded others that work as a sort of guild, supporting one another. This algorithmically determined sorting promises a utopian future.

However, not everyone is delighted by this. There are those whose tests don't place them into any of the 22 Affinities, who feel overlooked and ignored by power. There are those who refuse to be tested, or who don't believe their test results (end up in Slytherin, anyone? Did you just leave it there?)

Adam is a bit of a dull character, an Adamic everyman for readers to follow and identify with. It makes it hard to maintain the excitement of the story when the main character is so passive, but it really does make sense to have it that way -- it's like he hasn't 100% committed to the idea of affinities even when he seems to have done so. Of course Utopia never lasts, and internecine fighting between Affinities begin. The Taus, Adam's Affinity, claim moral high ground and the right to be the top Affinity, especially compared to the authoritarian, violent Hets, the villians of the piece. Nevertheless, the Taus have done some pretty awful things too, a bit more sneakily though.

It's broken up into three sections and so we see Adam's involvement begin, peak, and wane. It's an interesting work of sociological speculative fiction; much is made of technology and the human tendency toward tribalism. I think it provides us with a lot to consider in our world of social media and constructed identities. While it did move a bit slowly at times, and the end was a bit of a letdown, I did enjoy it. There is a lot to talk over in this story, a lot that seems quite possible. Why or whether it should be would be interesting to debate.

Quantum Night / Robert J. Sawyer
Toronto: Viking, c2016.
351 p.

I picked this one up since I've often liked Sawyer's thought-provoking fiction. But this one...this one disturbed me and after I read it I wished I hadn't.

It's too bad, really. The premise sounded very appealing -- a Ukrainian-Canadian professor based in Winnipeg discovers that he has a hole in his memory, having lost 6 months out of a year when he was a student. To uncover why and what happened then, he reaches back into the past thanks to some pretty miraculous technology and recalls facts that lead him to his present quandry: he realizes he did some horrible things back then.

There's also a love interest, of course, the college girlfriend he treated badly who is now a physicist in Saskatoon, and inexplicably she reconnects with him. Together they realize that the world is made up of 3 kinds of people, Q1, Q2, and Q3 according to the position of quantum particles in the brain. While I was reading the explanations for all of this quantum physics/biology Sawyer sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher. I found his love of info dumps and sciencey talk tedious and jargony, and ultimately unnecessary in a book in which characters drive the vague science forward.

Unfortunately this was not one of these books. The love interest, Kayla Huron, is ridiculously shallow and uninteresting; the main character Jim Marchuk is unbearably smug and obnoxious. Sadly, I felt that he was a mansplaining, self-absorbed character, especially in the cold-hearted Utilitarian philosophy he spouts and adheres to in the non-nuanced way you expect your bachelor uncle to do after he's had a few too many at the family barbeque. I wouldn't mind so much if he was supposed to be a difficult character, but it's clear that he is being held up as the hero, and the characteristics that irritated me (including his annoying habit of tossing in pop culture references and 'puns' that aren't puns all the time and calling it clever) are thought of as pluses. Also: he admits he's middle-aged and flabby but yet his old girlfriend is immediately re-attracted to him and falls immediately into non-demanding sex with him. He is middle-aged and flabby and yet when attacked by random road ragers he kills the young, violent dude chasing him, easy peasy, nothing to it. Oh, and did I mention the American invasion of Canada at the end, a silly and overblown plot device that shows that Sawyer has been thinking about American tv perhaps a little too much recently?

But the main issue I had with this book was its oversimplification of human personality and self-awareness. According to Jim, the world breaks down into those three quantum states, which they call "p-zeds, psychos, and quicks" for easy reference. Jim -- OF COURSE -- is the most highly evolved, a quick, and the others around him are not nearly so brilliant. Psychos are psychopaths, those without caring or empathy. Sawyer states a few times that psychopaths are not all violent killers but many times those who live and work around you. And yet, when characters switch states they immediately start thinking and saying the kinds of things that you might associate with violent criminals. And the worst is his portrayal of p-zeds (philosopher's zombies). They are individuals without an inner voice, an inner monologue that we might otherwise think of as a conscience or a self -- and he refers to them like they are a lesser species, simply drones or zombies to be used by the clever (such as Jim of course). This panders to the worst kind of self-righteous, smug young sf reader who I am hoping will not now have found a new way to judge and feel superior to others.

All in all, despite the pleasure of seeing places I know depicted in fiction, I can't recommend this one.


  1. The premise for The Affinities sounds really terrific -- I'm sorry to hear that the main character isn't much to pin a story on. Might give it a miss, as character development is super important to my reading enjoyment. :/

    1. He's not a total blank but he's also a bit easily influenced by others, let's just say...and the premise of the book is solid.


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