It wasn’t that long ago it struck me, watching the Twitter-war of the nanosecond: the social media killer app is just really fast ethnogenesis, the process by which a nation is created. Or was it: thank God these people haven’t got a finance ministry and can’t collect tax, or else there’d be a no kidding war?
The Affinities is the book for that feeling. In the near future, someone’s invented a social network app that actually works. Using a variety of survey-based, psychological, neurological, and biochemical tests, InterAlia will find the people you can get things done with.
It’s not that they’re like you. That would be mediocre at best. It’s not an IQ test, or anything that corny or racist. It’s that they’re…your people. The scene you were looking for when you buggered off. The right people to have in your Dunbar number.
The beauty of it is that they might come from any walk of life, enriching the gang – sorry – the affinity – with ideas, skills, and perspective. A while ago I watched the film Man on Wire, about the Frenchman who walked a high wire between the WTC towers just after they were built. The detail that stuck with me was how much engineering, or perhaps seamanship, was involved.
The wire had to get from one side over to the other, be anchored home, and hove taut. Clearly. But it also had to be stabilised in the Z-axis, against the tendency to twist or roll, and that was complicated. It needed two or more other wires as guys on each side, all of them made fast somewhere in the buildings. And the job had to be done on each tower simultaneously, so two independent teams were required. The wirewalker had a devoted St. Peter/crew chief figure who took care of these things, but he wasn’t going to be enough for the whole job – just carting all the kit up the fire stairs would be an athletic challenge.
Where to find the people, master craftsmen and gleeful pranksters you could trust with your life? Without breathing a word until the great moment? The answer was that they just kinda hung out in the right place and the right people seemed to fall into their lap once they hit on someone who had the right connections. The great welcoming Babylonian city was a reality. Al-Qa’ida’s suicide pilots were aiming for that as much as anything as they rolled out of their turns.
So, bottle it. Rather, implement it in software. That’s the Affinities. It thunders away because a secret society is the flip side of an open society you can’t trust any more.
The ambivalence of the project bites pretty quick. The protagonist is a hipster UX designer in Toronto who’s there because you’ve got to get out of the valley, as we used to say in Wharfedale, and because he can’t stand his Fox News-glued father. Like the big forces in life that take us towards ourselves – love, education, emigration – joining the Tau affinity also takes him away from home, family, and certainty.
As it turns out, it also takes him away from the wider society. Even though Tau feels a lot like the IETF – it’s full of unmaterialistic, creative, but argumentative potheads – a secret society dedicated to its members is always a dangerous thing. It starts off by looking after mates in trouble. Doesn’t it always? But it’s one of those irregular verbs. I am part of a deeply rooted community. You are privileged by the old boys’ network. They are no better than the Mafia. Or: I am part of a network of activists linked only by solidarity. You are a tiresome old-school social democrat. They are a dangerous entryist vanguard.
Another problem that comes up is that InterAlia Inc. owns the intellectual property to the test. Tau, at least, has the instinctive solution to this and the hacker chops to pull it off: reverse-engineer the process, improve it, and release an open-source implementation. It’s a cool project, but it runs them into conflict with the Hets, the people who really like hierarchy, who naturally also like software patents. Things get ugly and suddenly it becomes very significant indeed that the Affinities usually manage to collect a tithe from their members.
Unfortunately, it was around here that I started to worry about the plot. For example, fairly early on, we’re told that very rarely, people “drift” out of the requirements for their affinity. Periodic re-tests are carried out. This gun having been placed on the Chekhovian mantelpiece, it gets fired at the protagonist when the Tau leadership want to ease him out for political reasons.
But…he is the guy who led the open-source test kit project. Surely there is nobody who would be harder to fool, especially as he has already used the test to detect a spy in the organisation? He doesn’t even bother to check, which is odd seeing as we know he also re-tested during the development project at least once.
Also, rousting him is itself deeply un-Tau. The leadership – a problematic concept in itself, they’re lousy with The Tyranny of Structurelessness – is angry about an incident in the conflict with the Hets in which he displays the Nelson touch and ignores a directive from above in favour of the man on the spot’s judgment. And it works, at least tactically. The strategic-level plan doesn’t work out, but that’s because it was ill thought-out from the beginning. Actually I think this is unconvincing in itself, but it’s in the totalitarian powers of the author to decide how characters respond, so.
The Tau are really out of character punishing him over this, because they’re Auftragstaktik all over. They may think they’re a bunch of ineffectual artists, but they’re also the Artists’ Rifles – out of the only two ex-military Tau we meet, one is ex-SF and the other light infantry, which is telling. They’re precisely the people who volunteer for desperate things because they’re so very bored and they won’t put up with petty discipline. Their scheme on the night goes to rat shit, so does the revised scheme, but in the end, the third improvised plan kills. Without killing anyone.
I was also not particularly happy about the off-stage plot furnishing. This book includes a war between India, Pakistan, Iran, and China that starts off with real combat between proxies, escalates to offensive electronic warfare/CNE that leaks into the global Internet, and ends up with a Chinese strategic air offensive that stays conventional but causes most of Mumbai to burn down with not far shy of a million deaths. This seems hard to achieve with a few precision guided munitions, no nukes or mass bombing, but then Bomber Command failed to get Hamburg alight for three nights until they got a lucky direct hit on the telephone exchange.
Hey. That wasn’t my point. This was my point. All this war serves only one purpose in the plot: to turn off the phone network in a corner of upstate New York for a few hours. This is a pretty poor reason to casually kill off a million brown people to make room for the backswing of the hero’s sword. And in the Tau/Het conflict, you don’t need to take the Hets’ radio network down to give the Tau an advantage – people who like authority that much will only get themselves into a bigger tangle if their comms setup lets them ask permission from the boss more often. Nelson could have put his glass to his good eye, after all, but he chose to see no ships.
I thought this was actually worth reading. It’s built on a good idea rooted in intelligent foresight. It deals with big universal themes through the consequences of technology. It has atmosphere and pathos. I just wish he hadn’t burned Mumbai for plot convenience.