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We are Satellites
by Sarah Pinsker
Berkley, $16.00, 378pp
Published: May 2021

A couple of years ago, I read Sarah Pinsker's debut novel, 'A Song for a New Day' in one sitting, raving about it in my review. I adored that book and it's haunted me ever since, although I haven't gone back to re-read it yet. It seems as if it's much too topical now, given where the world went last year, and I'm a little worried that my sympathies with some of its characters might not be there any more, through no fault of theirs. I will go back to it and probably soon, especially given that it went on to win the 2020 Nebula, but it felt good to read Pinsker's second novel in the meantime.

'We are Satellites' didn't grab me the way 'A Song for a New Day' did, but I think it's going to haunt me just as much. It's deceptively impactful, because it's told very calmly, without much fuss; we follow the MacGuffin of the piece through the individual perspectives of a family of four, who go through drama without it ever remotely seeming like we're tuning in to their lives through reality TV.

Those four are Julie, Val, David and Sophie. Julie and Val are a lesbian couple, though the relationship isn't remotely focused on; it's just that they're Mom and Ma respectively, instead of Mom and Dad. As you might imagine, David and Sophie are their two children, who are teenagers in school as the story begins but grow into adults and move out as it develops. They're a good and caring family, though the commitment they have to each other is tested by their reactions to the MacGuffin, which is Pilot.

Pilot is a brain implant, though it's not as intrusive as that seems—installation is only an outpatient procedure—that enables true multitasking. It focuses you and it allows you to be greatly productive. It's a creation of BNL, Balkenhol Neural Labs, and that company plays a big part in how this plays out, not least because they have a monopoly on this technology. You pop in to their clinic, they quickly fit it and now you have the recognisable blue light on the side of your head to showcase that you're a Pilot user. Initially, you have to follow particular exercises to train your brain to deal with your Pilot, but it's soon second nature and, almost at once, the world changes.

What makes the family—we are given a surname, but not soon and it really isn't important—notably appropriate as our focus is that they each have a different outlook on Pilots. David wants it and wants it soon, because he can see the benefits it's brought to his classmates; he talks his mothers into it and becomes an early adopter, but it's noisy for him as if he's oversensitive to it. Julie feels a similar sort of pressure at work—she's on a congressman's staff—but resists it for a while. She holds back mostly because she knows Val isn't a fan. She isn't anti-Pilot but she doesn't see the need and being outside the growing society of Pilot users tilts her against it. Sophie is vehemently against, perhaps partly as she has seizures and so can't have a Pilot installed even if she wanted to. She becomes an activist who organises and speaks out against the tech.

And you can see where this is going. Well, you can't, because, if you could, you would have written this novel before Sarah Pinsker did and I'd be reviewing you right now, but you do get the picture. We shift through the years, from our and society's initial introduction to the Pilot through David's installation and then Julie's, then Sophie's resistance to it—ironically, as David literally becomes a BNL poster boy—and Val's inexorable dragging into something she doesn't really care that much about.

And, to me, that's where this resonated the most. Sure, this is about a particular piece of technology, introduced into society at large and, on a more personal scale, to a single family, and how everything changes. That's almost the classic definition of speculative fiction and this does a good job at looking at those changes from multiple perspectives without introducing an agenda. However, it's massively hard to remain completely impartial as an author and I took this to be as much about what it feels like to be left behind by a particular change as what that change means to society.

And maybe there is an agenda. I wondered at points if Pinsker was using the Pilot as an analogy for a change we've all gone through recently or perhaps are still going through. I could see people seeing the Pilot as the internet or cellular telephony or even the COVID vaccine. However long it took those things to be developed, once they hit critical mass they were everywhere, unavoidable and a catalyst for societal change. And, in each instance, those who chose not to go along with the mainstream, are left kind of hanging, albeit with very different acknowledgement of their outsider status.

I thought about all three of those things as the book ran on, moving from one to another as the kinda-sorta analogy. Initially, it felt like the internet, because that was something completely niche until a moment in time when suddenly everyone knew about it and had to have it and rushed madly online to do whatever people did there. And, in only a few years, it became routine for the majority. It changed, crucially, and is still changing and how we use it is changing too. There's talk about whether access to the internet is a human right, given how difficult it is to function nowadays without it.

My mother isn't online, even in 2021, and that does make it difficult to communicate with her, now I'm living on another continent eight time zones away. However, I'm with her on cellphones. Like David in this book, I was an early adopter. Like Julie, I found it very useful. But, as my life changed, I became a lot more like Val, in that I'm much happier not having one. But, like Sophie and my mum, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to do things without one. I might want to do all my banking online, but it's hard to do two factor authentication, now a European requirement, without a mobile phone.

And, eventually, Pilot becomes a political football, kind of like the COVID vaccine. The world becomes divided between those who have it and those who don't and, perhaps most importantly, that divide is constantly growing and each side is becoming more vocal about the other. Those who don't have it see it as a freedom to be cherished and a risk to be avoided, while those who have it can't understand why the other side would hold themselves back from something so clearly beneficial to everyone.

I don't think Pinsker took aim at any one of those three things, not specifically, though cellphones are mentioned at one point, through Val remembering what it was like to be the last person without one.  I think she treats the Pilot impartially enough and as enough of a MacGuffin that we can easily apply it to a wealth of examples, more of which will surely show up as the years pass. That's one reason why I think this novel is going to haunt me just as much as 'A Song for a New Day', which benefitted from the world bizarrely shifting in so many ways to match the one she'd conjured up.

It's very impressive, from a writer's perspective. Sure, it's carefully crafted and it's not hard to avoid that, but it's crafted so well that we're quickly and cleanly drawn into this world. The chapters switch between the four perspectives and they're so distinct that we really don't need names as headers for long. Maybe it's a little simplistic now, given that conspiracy theory whackjobs are mainstream, but I appreciated how subtly it was told. It's easy to pass time with this family and get into their routines, only to suddenly realise how much has changed since we began. When did that happen? It's masterful technique to be able to surprise us with what she's been telling us all along.

The only thing I think I'm missing is the title, but then this is such a quintessential choice for book club selection that it's just another topic starter. I presume what it's telling us is that we as a society have quite the habit nowadays of making something new the centre of our world. There's another book of the same title, a nonfiction look at putting God at the centre of our world, but it's not hard to do the same thing with a piece of technology. See the examples above and whatever else you're thinking of right now that didn't spring to my mind. If so, it could be called We are Sheep with similar effect, but perhaps a little judgement baked in.

If speculative fiction is supposed to make you think, then this is so on the ball that Pinsker could be up for another Nebula. Her books are easy to read, deceptively straightforward but hauntingly topical. I look forward to remembering this every couple of years when some new technological marvel changes how everything works. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Sarah Pinsker click here

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