Robert Charles Wilson and the Theory of Everyone
With his new novel, The Affinities, the sci-master scares the Heinlein out of us over social media groups
My personal theory is that there are two kinds of writers. There’s the loud kind whose lives and postures were their real masterpieces, folks like Hemingway and Mailer who were all about the image, who seemed to talk more than they ever typed. But then there’s the quiet kind of writer who will watch, who will observe and soak up stuff for inspiration and just gets on with the job, hard at work at the keyboard. Wilson seems to be that kind.
Not that science fiction’s ever had many of the loud kind anyway—L. Ron Hubbard earned his fame from going in a very (ahem) different career direction, and Philip K. Dick really became a legend after death. In contrast, Wilson comes across as Mr. Everyman. He’s anything but. He’s earned science fiction’s coveted Hugo award, the SyFy channel plans to make a mini-series out of his best known novel, and Stephen King once called him “probably the finest science fiction author now writing.”
His landmark novel was Spin, a dazzling mix of literary, character-driven narrative with hard science fiction concepts. Wilson has a brilliant gift for the verisimilitude of regular people near mind-blowing events. The book is narrated by Tyler Dupree, who starts off what feels like a nostalgic coming-of-age tale about his youth spent with his best friends, the twins, Diane and Jason—until an immense “membrane” completely covers the Earth, cutting off our planet from the stars and the normal passage of time relative to the rest of the universe.
He admits that “it kind of fascinates me, the way the extraordinary and the ordinary interact. It’s, in fact, one of the things that I liked about the idea for The Affinities is the science fiction idea, the scientific idea, because it comes out of cognitive science, it reflects right back into the lives of these people. It’s not, so often in science fiction we talk about characterization—as if it were something you added to a story to humanize it or something.”
The Affinities is a bit of a change of a pace for Wilson, with a larger chunk of the scientific iceberg, so to speak, underwater. In the novel, the world is very much recognizably our own. Hell, much of it’s set in Toronto. A regular shmoe named Adam Fisk decides to get tested for one of the social affinity groups. “It’s like family but more than family,” reads the inside blurb of the book, which pins it down quite well. “Your fellow members aren’t merely like you, and they aren’t just people who are likely to like you.” In this case, Friends With Benefits really means more than sex—the benefit of confiding a problem to a pal who gets you. Better still, the pal who’s so connected, he can help solve your problem for you. And Adam ends up in one of the best affinities there are, a group called Tau.
Locus Online, in reviewing the novel, had a hilarious line about reader expectations. “At this point, many writers, and probably many readers, would find it hard to resist the paranoid thriller in the making—Tau is ominous! Tau is vampires! It’s a cookbook!—but to his credit Wilson doesn’t want to go there.”
No, he doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean ominous, thriller things don’t happen…
I asked Wilson how plausible the social dynamics and analytics are behind the book. His answer amounts to: maybe more plausible than we think. After reading up on cognitive science, he says, “it began to dawn on me that we’re at the edge of another kind of revolution in scientific understanding. I mean we talk about the enlightenment and the sciences, and they’ve given us a tremendous understanding of the natural world and how to manipulate the natural world.
“But the big blank spot has always been human nature. Why are we the way we are, why do we think the way we think, what are the invisible flaws in the way we think? How much of that is innate, how much of that is built into us, and how much of that is what we acquire from culture? Those are interesting unanswered questions, and I think we’re on the brink of answering them much more comprehensively than we ever have before.”
Wilson claims he doesn’t have any in-depth understanding of a particular field of science—in fact, he was a high school dropout. “On the other hand I’ve been fascinated by science since I was a kid, and I’ve read widely in popular science, widely enough to at least get a grip on certain elementary ideas and see how they relate to one another. You have to be a bit of a polymath to write science fiction successfully, I think.”
He was partially inspired by the work of the American anthropologist, Terrence Deacon, and The Affinities has an amusing acknowledgements that pays tribute to Deacon while apologizing to him for borrowing his term, “telodynamics,” and shoehorning it into different contexts for his narrative. Wilson “never expected to hear from him, but after the book was published, I got an email from one of his graduate students saying that he was fascinated someone had borrowed the concept. Because apparently he’s a big science fiction fan, and he had had discussions with his students about how these ideas might work in a science fiction novel.”
“The traditional science fiction convention built around the literature barely exists these days…”
When I asked Wilson about his own affinities, his eyes narrowed, but tactfully avoided rolling up at such an Entertainment Tonight question. Still, it’s a legit inquiry. I mentioned a book that’s a modest treasure, Frederick Pohl’s memoir, The Way the Future Was. It’s sadly out of print, but it’s a delightful look back at how many of the greats of science fiction knew each other in New York City in the 1930s, then as now, the epicentre of American publishing. A teenage Isaac Asimov knew Pohl, and both would come to know Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Harry Harrison and other writers in the SF pantheon. Naturally, Wilson knows the book.
“You know, in Frederick Pohl’s day science fiction was a pretty narrow river, and you could know everybody,” he replies, warming to the notion. “And if you lived in a town like New York you could know all the important writers… I came up through fandom like those guys did, I got to know people locally. I knew [Robert] Sawyer before he had published his first novel. We’ve known each other a long time, or at least been acquainted.
“But in a way I had a kind of affinity group that way, back in the Seventies when I first moved to Toronto as a young man… We would walk around all night talking about philosophy and science fiction and history and that stuff, and that was great. And a lot of those people could have gone on to have careers in the field. As it happens they didn’t, although one of them was my current editor at Tor [Books]—Patrick Neilson Hayden was one of those guys we were wandering around with at all hours, back when he was in Toronto in the Seventies.
Today, says Wilson, things are more diffuse. “I’m not sure what the purpose of a science fiction convention is now. I mean I know why big media conventions like Comicon exist—they’re a promotional forum, and it is a chance for people to get together and share their geekiness and stuff. But the traditional science fiction convention built around the literature barely exists these days. And there’s no reason it should, because you can have all that stuff on the Internet as it is. And on top of that, science fiction, which used to be a strange minority taste… it’s everywhere, everyone speaks that language.”
For Wilson these days, he reads Neil Stephenson and enjoys “everything Kim Stanley Robinson writes.” Wilson says “there are tons of good writers out there, that’s not the problem, and as long as there’s an audience for writers like that I can’t really complain.”
Fans of Wilson also may not have to wait for another mind-bending, provocative volume. He says he’s finishing up a new novel that explores alternate history and infinite parallel universes. “…The nearest one to us might seem as if it were a minute or an hour in the past, one farther away would be a year or two years or fifty years or a hundred years.”
In his novel, “you can travel to one of these pasts and screw around with it all you want—it’s not going to do anything to your present. It makes it possible to use the past as a tourist destination, to monetize it. For various reasons, the most convenient destinations tend to be 100, 150, 200 years in the past.
“What happens is that we have, what I wanted to set up was a situation where our gilded age has to interact with the gilded age of the 1870s, 1880s. It’s essentially about a wealthy person who owns a chain of luxury resorts and decides to monetize the 1870s by building a resort there. In other words, you can buy a ticket, you can go there, he’ll tour you around to San Francisco 1875, New York 1875. But it’s not, it’s not invisible to that era.”
But of course, there are complications. There’s a flipside to the premise, because that distant past “is finding its own way to monetize this interaction with people from the future. Everyone’s making money from it, but it’s kind of like a standoff, because there’s a huge cultural and political gap between these two times. This takes place in the States obviously, so you’re dealing with racism, you’re dealing with the fact that women can’t vote—you’re dealing with all these issues. And those people might not like to know that we, who represent their glorious future, have views on these issues that the don’t approve of.”
And, I asked, what happens when these folks from the sepia-toned time discover our Samsung-Facebook-Virgin Air age hasn’t progressed that much on some of these controversies?
“That’s one of the issues,” says Wilson. “That’s what makes the story enormously fun for me, is that it throws a spotlight on all this stuff.”