Paul Di Filippo Reviews We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

We Are Satellites, Sarah Pinsker (Berkley 978-1984802606, $16.00, 400pp, pb) May 2021.

Can science fiction—so often seen as the literature of the cosmic, the outré, the wide-screen perspective, populated by larger-than-life loners—ever be successfully hybridized with the naturalistic, domestic novel—the artistic glorification of the mundane, the quotidian, the miniaturist perspective, populated by uniquely average and intriguingly commonplace interrelated folks? This is a question famously asked by Ursula Le Guin in her essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown”. I think the question has been answered in the affirmative often enough to remove all doubts, but such occurrences in our field are still fairly rare. (Meanwhile, fantasy and horror seem to have less trouble uniting their speculations and uncanny doings with the lives of everyday folks than does SF.)

I would argue that Ray Bradbury was one of the first to venture into this territory. A story like “The Veldt” is purely family-centric, as is Clifford Simak’s City cycle. The 1950s and 1960s were well-known for an influx of mostly female writers who brought hearthside concerns into fantastika. Judith Merril, Kit Reed, Mildred Clingerman, Zenna Henderson, Carol Emshwiller, and a host of others. Curiously enough, Le Guin herself did not focus initially on such a fusion, preferring space operas. Of late, we see sterling work along these lines from such writers as Lisa Goldstein, Maureen McHugh, M. Rickert, Karen Joy Fowler, Christopher Priest, and M. John Harrison. Martin Shoemaker’s Today I Am Carey is another excellent example.

Following boldly in the footsteps of these predecessors, Sarah Pinsker gives us a tale that manages to beautifully blend technology and family life, large-scale transfigurations with individual epiphanies, in a person-sized chronicle of challenges, maturations, and uneasy accommodations to and resistance against “progress.”

Our setting is the familiar American landscape after some small indeterminate advance into the future. The only real novum introduced, however, is a major one: the Pilot. It’s a brain implant from Balkenhol Neural Labs, surgically installed, which confers true multitasking abilities: the power to split one’s mental focus into multiple streams of attention. (I know that it’s a wild leap from Pinsker’s sober and realistic presentation of this idea to van Vogt’s The World of Null-A, whose superhero, Gilbert Gosseyn, had extra grey matter that conferred vast abilities, but I think nonetheless there’s a subterranean thread that links these two books, as well as other antecedents involving leaps in human mentality. The shared spirit of the theme overrides the differences.) This new brain prosthetic will, one way or another, shape the fates of our four protagonists, all members of the same family.

Julie and Val are the parents, two loving wives. Julie is more businesslike, hip, efficient and logical, while Val is more emotional, intuitive, primal, and dogged. Their two children, first encountered as adolescents, are David and Sophie. David, the oldest, is serious and somewhat conservative, aspiring to achieve society’s goals, while Sophie, contoured by her epilepsy, is more rebellious, funny, and quick to take offense.

Pinsker alternates their viewpoints across a full 70 chapters, some bite-sized, others quite substantial. This allows for deep identification with all four nicely drawn individuals, built up quickly before the plot really begins to accelerate, and also delivers useful alternate perspectives on the Pilot, as well as handy plot reveals. The David chapters are particularly compelling, as they represent in a unique style his subjective modes of thought, post-Pilot.

As I just hinted, the tech intrudes into the family first when David, feeling like a bit of a slow coach, seeks to get upgraded to match his peers who are already modded. Julie is fairly positive about the idea, while Val and Sophie are against. But when David finally gets the device, the battle lines harden. Soon Julie has her own Pilot, while Sophie has gone from queasiness about the idea to anti-Pilot militancy.

As a few years go by the family still manages to hang together, loving each other despite opposed stances. The thick details that portray spousal and parental and sibling relations are fresh, vivid, and very touching. You will really believe in the authentic, organic nature of this family. But when Sophie’s activism ramps up and David joins, first, the military, and then the Balkenhol Neural Labs team itself, ideology begins to trump bonds of familial affection, until a final crisis asks whether blood is thicker than fiber optics.

While there are some nicely limned ancillary characters, such as Sophie’s comrade-in-arms Gabe and Julie’s politician boss, Representative Griffith, 99 percent of this book revolves around the family members, and consequently the reader must be prepared for a more microcosmic portrayal of the themes—inclusion and exclusion, elites and pariahs, self-improvement and self-acceptance, honesty and deceit—than might be given in a typical SF novel, where we could eavesdrop on corporate suites, scientists, generals, and other movers and shakers. Pinsker is truly intent on tightening her focus almost to the neighborhood granularity of Disch’s 334.

One thing that Pinsker does admirably is to spread out both the heroism and the moral failings. Julie willingly takes on many onerous duties and communal weights, but is manipulative and bossy. Val often zones out into her private world and sometimes erupts belligerently, but is resilient and quick to forgive. David is straightforward and honest, with a simple good nature, but falls apart from holding everything in and regarding any need for help as weakness. Sophie—in a way, this is almost more her tale than that of the other three—is passionate and committed to making a better world, but possesses all the naivete and deceitful situational ethics of any over-the-top ideologue and zealot. Yet somehow all their deficiencies and wounded parts add up to a capable and achieving wholeness—which, I guess, is almost the definition of the family unit.

At one point, David thinks: “That was the problem with multiple attentions; he could never put anything fully away. There was an unspoken fourth and fifth and sixth and twentieth thing in every three he listed.” This passage seems to me to describe the functionality and demands placed on any novelist, and in her awesome juggling and dissection of techno-tropes, along with the mimetic exfoliation of the varies natures of this quartet, Sarah Pinsker reveals herself to be running at optimal Pilot usage.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

This review and more like it in the May 2021 issue of Locus.

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