Tag Archives: Canada

Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Imagine the chance to find a group of like-minded people who welcome you with open arms, people who just get you, who understand what you mean before you even say it. In The Affinities, author Robert Charles Wilson conjures a future in which taking a series of tests offered by the company Inter Alia can open up a whole new world of social harmony. Adam Fisk, unhappy with his unsatisfactory friendships and dysfunctional family, makes the decision to give the testing service a try, with remarkable results.

Adam discovers a social network that offers support and comfort unlike anything he’s experienced before. Others in his affinity group, the Taus, offer him a place to live after his family cuts him off financially, and hire him when he needs a job. He develops a fierce and lasting loyalty to the Taus and works to defend his group against the machinations of their increasingly powerful nemesis, the Hets.

Not everyone who takes the Inter Alia tests is so lucky. Only about 65% of those who try the service are actually assigned to one of the 22 affinity groups named (somewhat randomly) after the letters of the Phoenician alphabet. As the affinities take on greater importance in society, opposition to them also grows. Meanwhile, those who belong to an affinity group increasingly cut themselves off from outsiders, even finding it difficult to communicate with them on the most basic level. Adam loves his fellow Taus, but he never loses his empathy for those outside his group, and this eventually leads to conflict.

I love science fiction that focuses on society and The Affinities is an excellent example of the genre, taking a current societal trend to its potential extreme. People increasingly tend to seek out the company and opinions of others who share their views and outlook on life, but what are the potential consequences of this preference for similarity? What happens when you exclude from your social circle anyone whose perspective differs from your own?

The author resists the temptation to spell out all the specific characteristics that make you a Tau, a Het, or one of the other affinity groups, and in fact doesn’t even describe most of them. That means no chance to guess which affinity you belong to, no sorting yourself into Candor or Abnegation. While the technology to assign people to affinity groups doesn’t yet exist, we’re already sorting ourselves on Facebook, Fox News and Farmers Only.com. Would we jump at the chance to make it scientific? I’m guessing we probably would.

Genre: Social science fiction.

Read it if: You are intrigued by fiction that explores ongoing social trends; you dream of finding people who truly understand you, preferably with the help of an algorithm; you enjoy books like The Circle by Dave Eggers and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Skip it if: You are looking for the next Divergent; you prefer your science fiction more hard than not; you categorically refuse to read books set largely in Canada.

Movie-worthy: Sure, why not.

Review: Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez

Syndrome EHow do you say The Ring en francais? Actually, although this French thriller revolves around a mysterious and devastating film, the resemblance to the horror movie is fleeting. Nothing supernatural lurks behind the celluloid monstrosity; the evil in this novel is purely human in nature.

Solving the horrifying puzzle behind the film falls to Franck Sharko, an emotionally damaged and mentally ill behavior analyst, and Lucie Hennebelle, an ambitious police detective with young twin daughters. As a character, Sharko comes from a long line of detectives with dark pasts and tortured souls. His torment manifests in the form of a recurring hallucination, a little girl named Eugenie who demands candied chestnuts and cocktail sauce. Hennebelle, meanwhile, shows signs of obsession in her relentless pursuit of the case; she is on vacation when she first becomes involved, and she leaves the bedside of her hospitalized daughter to travel wherever the case takes her.

And it takes both her and Sharko to some very dark places. The film holds long-hidden secrets that involve the very nature of evil, the trigger behind the human capacity for atrocity. The more they dig into the film’s history and origins, the more the bodies pile up.

While the psychological concepts underlying Syndrome E were fascinating, the novel didn’t always work for me. I am not a particularly squeamish person but the subject matter–violence involving children and animals–left me feeling queasy. The translation also created a sense of disconnection, like watching a movie with subtitles. Maybe this was intentional on the part of the translator, to maintain a flavor of the original French, but it sometimes distracted me. For example, everyone calling Detective Hennebelle “miss,” where mademoiselle might sound more normal.

Genre: Psychological serial-killer noir.

Read it if: Un Chien Andalou is your favorite movie; you like your noir extra dark; you enjoy staring into the abyss of the human soul.

Skip it if: You don’t want to read about children, bunnies and violence in the same sentence; you didn’t get Lasik surgery because that scene in Un Chien Andalou scarred you for life (like me!); you prefer depictions of mental illness that don’t involve whimsical touches like cocktail sauce.

Movie-worthy: Some things are better read about than seen.