Gary K. Wolfe Reviews We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

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

When I reviewed Sarah Pinsker’s collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that her approach to SF was fairly restrained, usually focusing on the impact of a particular new tech­nology, like a process for suppressing memories in “Remembery Day”, or a virtual concert tech­nology called StageHolo in “Our Lady of the Open Road” and in her novel A Song for a New Day. The latter also features a rather grim future of terrorists and plagues (which barely seemed like the future at all within a few months of the novel’s publication). With We Are Satellites, the new gadget is a brain implant called a Pilot, which supposedly greatly enhances the capacity for multitasking, although it doesn’t claim to ac­tually increase intelligence. Nor does it give you instant access to the web or provide you with the sort of onboard Wikipedia that my students were fantasizing about as long as a decade ago. The idea of neural implants of one sort or another is a pretty ancient one in SF – it’s been nearly a half-century since Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man tried to convince us that Of Course It Will Backfire – but this is where Pinsker’s restraint helps ground her novel in a fully realized world. She’s not really concerned about the details of the technology or the question of whether multitask­ing is really a thing at all (though that question does pop up later in the novel). What she’s con­cerned about is family, and a pretty interesting family at that.

As the novel opens, Julie works on the staff of a congressman, and her wife Val is a teacher and track coach in a private school where their older child, David, is a student. Their adopted daughter, Sophie, is in fourth grade and suffers from epi­lepsy. Both Val and David notice that many of the more affluent students are showing up with the telltale blue LEDs indicating that Pilots have been installed in their skulls, and David starts lobby­ing to have one of his own in order to keep up in class. (Sophie is considered ineligible because of her condition.) As the Pilots – a proprietary tech­nology of a suitably shadowy corporation called Balkenhol Neural Labs – become as ubiquitous as smartphones, Julie decides that she needs one as well. Val, however, remains skeptical. This essentially sets up the personal and ideological tensions that will test the family’s solidarity over the next decade or so. Despite his concerns that his own Pilot generates a disturbing background “noise,” David unexpectedly decides to join the military – where he credits the Pilot for repeat­edly saving his life – while Sophie grows up to be a leader of what amounts to a Pilot resistance movement.

While there are the inevitable revelations about the true nature of the Pilots and the secretive cor­poration behind them, Pinsker is less interested in a paranoid corporate thriller than in skillfully developing her portrait of a family trying to sur­vive its own centrifugal forces. Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of each of the four main characters – none of them privileged by first per­son – and most of the appeal of the novel has only marginally to do with its SF content. We learn to understand the dynamics of Val and Julie’s mar­riage and how their respective careers affect it, and how Sophie grows from a kid perceived as fragile into a sharp and articulate political strategist. Only David remains something of an enigma to us and to his family – especially with his unexpected decisions to join the military and later, despite his own misgivings, to become a public spokes­man for the Pilot corporation. The occasional stuttering and fuguing of his chapters, meant to give a sense of what that background Pilot “noise” feels like, are Pinsker’s boldest stylistic experiments in the novel, and they work. While a near-tragedy finally lands the family or more or less the same page, getting there is not easy. Early on, when the ten-year-old Sophie catches sight of a satellite moving across the night sky, Val tries to explain to her that there are many satellites, but they never collide because “it’s kind of like when people are running at the same speed in the same direction, so they never catch each other.” “One of them should take a shortcut so they can meet and run together,” says Sophie, and watching these intriguing and imperfect family members finding a way to bring their orbits together is what We Are Satellites is really about. It’s such a deeply humane portrait of a family that it barely needs its SF at all – even though the SF provides an unnervingly credible hint of what challenges families might face in the not-too-distant future, if we aren’t quite there already.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

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

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