Robert Charles Wilson is an award-winning author. Perhaps best known for the Hugo-award winning Spin (best novel, 2006), Wilson also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for The Chronoliths and the Philip K. Dick award for Mysterium.
His latest novel, The Affinities, postulates a new set of technologies – brain, genetic and behavioral mapping – that are used to test (for a fee) and assign people to one of twenty-two affinity groups, matching people to a group of folks with similar test results who will cooperate with them for mutual benefit. The story follows Adam Fisk, a college student who gets tested and matched with the Tau affinity. His relationships with Taus grow stronger that his other relationship (including family), and Adam works with the group as it becomes larger, wealthier (as a group and as individuals), and more powerful in the world.
Bob was kind enough to be interviewed by email after I stole…eh…was loaned a copy of his latest book from John DeNardo. Our interview covered this latest novel, and his other works. Finding very little background information on Bob, I also asked him some basic biography questions.
Larry Ketchersid: Besides the obvious setting (note: The Affinities is set in Toronto and upstate New York), how do you think being an American (and a Californian) living in Toronto affected the perspective you bring to your writing?
Robert Charles Wilson: You know, I’ve been asked this question many times over the course of my career, and I usually try to make some thoughtful-sounding generalization about an insider/outsider perspective — or something like that. But in all honesty, that’s probably bullshit. Every writer creates a perspective out of the contingencies and accidents of his or her personal history. Moving from California to Canada at an early age may have encouraged me to question a few things I might otherwise have taken for granted. But questioning familiar assumptions is what science fiction asks us to do, too, and I was already a science fiction reader by the time my family left the United States.
LK: And here I thought I was being insightful and original…the deluded interviewer continues…
Social networking has caused as much schism by affinity as it have caused inclusion. The obvious schism is during elections. Friends in the UK tell me it is similar there as it is in the US, where party lines are drawn like battle lines. The grand bagel king of SFSignal and I were discussing this concerning certain subgroups in reddit, who guard their subreddit zealously, pouncing on anyone who seems like an outsider. Was their a particular inspiration for this affinity testing in the novel? It certainly feels that sometimes the internet which connects all peoples of the world pushes us into little groups rather than pulls us all together.
RCW: I have to insist that The Affinities isn’t about social media (though everyone seems to want to draw the analogy, and there are certainly analogies to be drawn). The 22 Affinity groups in the novel are a way of sorting people with innate collaborative skills into heterogenous groups in which these skills will be maximally deployed. It’s about a new science of cooperative behavior with roots in biology, neurology, and the heuristics of social interaction. The reason the Affinities attract loyalty — and displace prior loyalties to family or state or religion — is that they work. They’re real. They really do improve life, in big and obvious ways, for anyone who qualifies for membership. I’m not sure you can say the same about reddit.
LK: Understood. But what motivates people to gravitate toward these groups? What motivates them to be tested with this hypothetical new technology? There’s a great sequence in your book where Geddy and Adam are talking about if the world is old or young. Perhaps instead of a “big event” it is the sequence of small events (climate change, political problems resulting in wars, a feeling of helplessness to be unable to affect change), events that make the world feel old, which motivates people to want to pay the fee to get tested.
“I liked the idea. I wanted it to be true. We’re the most cooperative species on the planet – is there anything you own that you build entirely with your own hands, from materials you extracted from nature all by yourself? And without that network of cooperation we’re as vulnerable as three-legged antelopes in lion territory. But at the same time: what a talent we have for greed, for moral indifference, for wars of conquest on every scale from kindergarten to the U.N. Who hasn’t longed for a way out of that bind? It’s as if we were designed for life in some story-book family, in a house where the doors are never locked and never need to be.” (pg 26)
RCW: What motivates people to get tested for an Affinity? I think the quote you supplied suggests part of the answer. But I can imagine all kinds of motives, ranging from trivial curiosity to a deep personal sense of estrangement or dissatisfaction. The situation of the narrator, Adam Fisk, with his dysfunctional family and crumbling job prospects, is a case in point. And the Affinities make a tantalizing promise — idealized human relationships in a better kind of family, with real-world benefits in terms of mutual support and understanding — and they seem to deliver on it.
Geddy’s naive-sounding question (“Is the world old or is it young?”) goes a little deeper than that. Dystopian novels are commonplace these days, but The Affinities isn’t one of them. In fact there’s a quietly anti-dystopian thread running through the book. Right now the future looks pretty bleak in many ways — which is why all those dystopian narratives seem both plausible and compelling — and there is a temptation to see modernity, or Enlightenment values, or the idea of progress, or human civilization itself, as a played-out, self-cannibalizing dead end. But the social technology that generated the Affinities may be the progenitor of radical new solutions to big, previously intractable problems. Are we at the end of things, or do we still have a long, promising future ahead of us? By the end of the book, and despite everything that’s happened, Geddy sees the big possibilities.
LK: I found it very anti-dystopian. I wonder how a survivalist would view this technology. Even though many survivalists claim self-sufficiently, they still are the beneficiaries of other peoples solutions, like learning how to build a portable wind turbine on the Mother Earth news website. As the technology got cheaper, do you imagine there would still be a set of NOTA’s (not affinity) like survivalists?
RCW: I can’t guess what a survivalist might make of any of this. One hopes that the end result would be to make survivalism superfluous. But one of the implications of the technology is that there might not be a single, viable, one-size-fits-all “utopia.” I mean, I can imagine social scenarios that would look like utopia to me. But I know people who would find them insufferable. Maybe any real utopia would look more like a utopia-swarm, a complex of pocket utopias interacting in mutually beneficial ways. Which is what the Affinities seem to be, at least at first.
LK: If this technology, this new science of cooperative behavior were available, would you get tested?
RCW: I don’t think the novel makes sense unless the Affinities seem at least a little attractive to the reader. (And the best reactions to the book I’ve had are from people who tell me they’d love to have something like the Tau Affinity in their lives.) So, sure, yeah, I’d get tested. But I’d be on the lookout for the unintended consequence. You can think of The Affinities as a story about a good idea with unintended consequences.
LK: I probably would as well, but only if my entire family could get tested. And like some of the characters you mention in the book, unless we all got into the same affinity, I’d pass. The Affinity ties appear to make family ties more brittle.
The technology (software, hardware, algorithms) needed for the testing is initially expensive and complicated; then, like most tech, it gets cheaper, available to the masses. Unintended consequences/unforeseen uses ensue when more people with different perspectives gain access. I’m surprised this has happened yet with genetics testing, which still seems overly expensive. The Internet, on the other hand, is widely available, inexpensive and has loads of unforeseen uses/unintended consequences. One wonders if it will be seen decades in the future as a good thing or a bad thing…as something that brought humanity together or pushed it further apart into islands. If you revisited the world of The Affinities several decades out, what light do you think the technology would be seen in?
RCW: The Affinities are, in a way, the Model T of social teleodynamics. Ten years on, it’s probably all about the New Socionome movement. But you’re tempting me to commit sequel-by-interview.
LK: The concept of “drift”, for those who haven’t read the book, is that, since people change, the readings that the testing gives could change, such that those “on the border” of certain affinity groups could “drift” out of the requirements for that group.
“Drift” was a problem buried in the fine print of an Affinity test. The human brain and the human mind were malleable. Affinity scores tended to be robust, but they could change over time; it was possible for someone barely a Tau to drift out of the range of qualification altogether, and Inter-Alia had always mandated five-year retests. The phenomenon was thankfully rare – in my years with Tau I had heard of only one case of terminal drift in the city, a suburban car wash owner who failed to re-up and was forced to leave his tranche, tears all around – but it was a terrifying concept. (pg. 176)
With the aforementioned testing becoming cheaper and more widespread as the book progresses, this would imply testing available multiple times during a persons life, including some testing at birth, and at various times in their lives. People change; their Affinity could change as they “drift”. There could be a certain group of “Affinity hoppers”…not quite sure where I am going with this one, Bob, but these hoppers could be the liaisons between the disparate groups. Thoughts?
RCW: Well, we can rule out some things, like Affinity testing at birth: it’s a cognitive test, after all, and a newborn could hardly be ranked on the pertinent scales. But there are all kinds of possibilities, including some that I considered but didn’t include in the book for reasons of narrative economy. (For instance, might there be “super-collaborators” who would be at home in any Affinity?) I like that the premise is sturdy enough to raise these questions in readers’ minds.
LK: My first question was going to be: Californian, living in Toronto, has a character named Geddy that’s a musician. How many times have you seen Rush and are you going to see them on the R40 tour?
RCW: Regarding Geddy — I’m actually not much of a Rush fan, to be honest. I’m not sure at this point exactly why I chose the name, except that it seemed memorably odd and somehow right.
LK: Rush fans all over the world – including me – just died a little…or will just ignore that answer and argue about which album inspired you!
LK: Your novels could be characterized by following one person or group watching or acting upon the effects of one major science fictional event. Stephen King is quoted talking about your writing, saying “I’m not a big science fiction fan, but I’ll read anything with a story and a low geek factor. Robert Charles Wilson is a hell of a storyteller, and the geek factor in his books is zero.” Besides going utter fan boy by having Stephen King say this, is this by design? I would imagine that you create an “event” (the monoliths showing up in The Chronoliths, the barrier around the Earth in Spin, the psych-profiling tech in The Affinities) and then build the characters around their reaction to the event. What is your process?
RCW: “Process” makes it sound much more methodical than it really is. It would be hard to deny that I’m attracted to Big Event stories, but especially if the Big Event has some kind of thematic implication. If the Earth were somehow fixed in time while the rest of the universe went on burning down the thermodynamic highway to oblivion — how would we then conceive of our lives, who would acquiesce to fate and who would fight it, how would science and religion and politics bend or break under the pressure? It’s when you start to ask those questions that character and plot begin to take center stage.
LK: In several of your novels, the “response to the big event” seems to include the formation of new cult-like groups, some paralleling religious groups. I would assume that you perceive this “let’s all huddle together because of the life-changing event” fairly predictable human behavior. Are there examples of this in the real world that drove this point home to you?
RCW: This happens in Spin, for instance, when both science and traditional religion seem insufficient to explain what’s happened to the planet. But it isn’t what’s going on in The Affinities, where the formation of new “groups” emerges from a (hypothetical) new scientific understanding of human consciousness and social dynamics.
LK: While I enjoy multi-book epics as much as the next person (I say this tongue in cheek…I enjoy *some* multi-book epics), I applaud your stories that are single novels. Telling a story like The Affinities in 300 pages is truly a work of art and creativity. So..why only one set of extended novels (the Spin series)? All of your worlds are deep enough, complex enough, to support multiple books. Do you ever get tempted to go back and add on?
RCW: Sure, I’m occasionally tempted. Some books almost invite sequels. But the temptation to write a sequel is almost always counterbalanced by the temptation to write something new — either because I value novelty or because I’m easily bored.
LK: I’ve read that the novel you are currently working on is called The Last Year. Can you describe it? When will it be available?
RCW: The Last Year is a kind of time-travel story. The premise is that we exist in a vast Hilbert space of neighboring universes separated by time-like distances — a “nearby” universe will look like our universe as it was a minute or an hour ago, a more distant one will look like our 1850 or 1650. The upshot is that this allows a sort of time travel without paradoxes. Visit 1850 and you won’t change our 2015, which is safely immutable — though your visit might guarantee that their 2015, when it eventually rolls around, won’t look anything like ours.
Which, in the novel, makes it possible to treat the past as a lucrative tourist destination. Part of the action takes place a luxury resort for wealthy tourists who want a first-hand experience of post-Civil-War America.
What we get is a confrontation between two Gilded Ages, each deeply suspicious of the other but cynically willing to extract a profit from the arrangement, each engaged in a kind of cultural stare-down that’s bound to blow up as soon as the connection ceases to make money for both parties. We also get an attempt on the life of President Grant, racial and labor violence, and the question of which contemporary songs you might download into a playlist for a friend if your friend was a gunslinging drifter raised in a San Francisco whorehouse. It’s been great fun to write (I’m a chapter or so away from “The End”), and I expect it will be published sometime next year.
LK: Bob, your first novel, A Hidden Place, was released in 1986, when you were in your thirties. What did you do before that (what did you do before you became a full time writer)? What motivated you to write and submit?
RCW: I developed an ambition to write at a ridiculously early age. Finished a couple of (completely unpublishable) novels when I was in my teens, wrote sporadically in my twenties and submitted stories here and there in the decade before I began to make consistent sales. I worked a few different jobs during that time, but the longest and best gig I had was as a transcriptionist for the Ontario Human Rights Commission. People would come in with complaints (usually race or gender discrimination), their interviews would be recorded, and my job was to turn the tapes into written records. Great work for an aspiring author: it taught me a lot about the way people talk, what conversation looks like on a page, how punctuation can convey meaning — and it taught me even more about human nature, for better or worse.
LK: As we’ve discussed, your novels feature people and their reactions to events, more than the events themselves. I read one review of A Hidden Place which stated that your writer voice sounded like Faulkner and Steinbeck. What influenced your writing style, the style that King called something like science fiction with a low geek factor? Did you read a lot of science fiction or pulp fiction growing up?
RCW: I fell in love with science fiction as soon as I learned to read (and I learned to read before I was old enough to attend school). But I read voraciously, and while some of the first books I loved were science fiction (Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books, for example), I was equally drawn to non-sf (e.g., Eleanor Estes’ novels about Cranbury, Connecticut — or maybe I was just drawn to writers named Eleanor). The boundary between sf and “mainstream” literature always seemed a little fuzzy to me. The sheer strangeness of SF was immensely appealing, but so was the magical capacity of the written word to capture and evoke ordinary, fleeting things. Given that, I was primed to fall under the influence of writers like Ray Bradbury, Clifford Simak, Theodore Sturgeon — writer who could do both things at once. “Both things at once” was the Grail for me, as a reader and as a writer.
LK: What was the break that got your first novel published?
RCW: I sold a story to Shawna McCarthy back when she was editing Asimov’s Magazine in the early eighties. Shortly after that she left Asimov’s for an editorial job at Bantam Books, and I got a letter from her — I assume a whole batch of noob Asimov’s authors got the same letter — asking whether I had a novel she could look at. I told her yeah, I had a novel. Now, technically, I hadn’t yet written it, but I had, you know, thought about it… The upshot was that I conceived and wrote A Hidden Place for her, and the book was successful enough to kick-start a career.
LK: If you were a tree…no, really, just kidding.
RCW: A yellow birch overlooking a glacial lake in the Laurentian Plateau. (Yeah, I’m kidding too.)
LK: There are a plethora of self-publishing options now. What is your view of the marketplace?
RCW: I’m the wrong guy to ask. “Breaking into print” is an entirely different process now than it was when I got into the field: everything is in flux, including the definition of “print.” It’s a little dismaying, like standing back and watching as corporate interests, copyright lawyers, and digital device engineers fight over the corpse of popular literature. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome is going to be. My personal hope is that some form of conventional publishing survives long enough to accommodate whatever remains of my career as a novelist. I tell people I’m in therapeutic denial about the future of publishing.