I absolutely fell in love with Sarah Pinsker’s writing with A Song For A New Day, which I reviewed here, so I was really happy to be asked to be on the blog tour for her newest book, We Are Satellites!
Book: We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
Read before: No
Paperback release date: 13th May 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Head of Zeus. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Depiction of seizures on page, both experienced and observed; discussions (not graphic) of warfare and the mental toll on veterans; off-page brain surgery; accident with train, leading to off-page amputation; medical gaslighting and difficulties getting doctors to believe in mental illness; recreational drug taking and addiction.
Everybody’s getting one.
Val and Julie just want what’s best for their kids, David and Sophie. So when teenage son David comes home one day asking for a Pilot, a new brain implant to help with school, they reluctantly agree. This is the future, after all.
Soon, Julie feels mounting pressure at work to get a Pilot to keep pace with her colleagues, leaving Val and Sophie part of the shrinking minority of people without the device.
Before long, the implications are clear, for the family and society: get a Pilot or get left behind. With government subsidies and no downside, why would anyone refuse? And how do you stop a technology once it’s everywhere? Those are the questions Sophie and her anti-Pilot movement rise up to answer, even if it puts them up against the Pilot’s powerful manufacturer and pits Sophie against the people she loves most.
This book is a fantastic example of how speculative fiction doesn’t need to centre around big, world-changing events in order to be powerful and unsettling. The Pilot, a brain augmentation that switches you into a more productive, more focused mindset, so you’re operating at your best every day, is a completely believable next step up for a society obsessed with technological improvements. We carry supercomputers in our pockets and on our wrists, everywhere we go. We chat to robot assistants out loud in our workplaces and homes. And though Google Glass never seemed to take off for the regular consumer, as a society we’re always considering how to integrate that assistive tech even further into our lives. Imagine if you had the power to keep a notebook in your head, to learn a language in the back of your mind while you do the weekly shop, to have a reminder about your friend’s upcoming birthday pop up when you’re walking past Paperchase, not when you’re halfway home (that one just me??). The Pilot seems like a completely natural progression of our desire to stay switched on and functioning well at all times; it seems like a blessing for those who feel overworked and overwhelmed. It’s scary how easily I could believe it would be the next great trend.
Really, that credibility is what makes Pinsker so impressive as a writer. She has a phenomenal talent for showing you intense science fiction situations that somehow never strays too far from your own lived experience. I described the sci-fi aspects of A Song for a New Day as ‘insidious’, and I think the same holds true here – this is a story about very normal people whose world simply slides a little bit more science-fictional than ours; a possible future, not an invented one. The way she weaves technology and dystopia into and through the mundanity of regular life is astonishing – it makes every bit of the story totally believable, because there’s this core of just regular human life that’s expressed so clearly and relatably that you end up accepting this as a possible future. I worry that putting it like that makes it sound like this book is boring, when it’s anything but – it’s just that the tech is so seamlessly woven into things that it almost feels like this could be real life. The same bones of the world adopting brain-augmenting tech and the anti-tech resistance could have been a bombastic blockbuster about dangerous missions and brain surgery, but keeping this focused on the Pilot’s effect on one family, and letting you intuit its effect on the wider world through their story, makes it that much more intense and interesting.
The chapters rotate between the viewpoints of the four main characters, mothers Val and Julie and their kids David and Sophie. All four of them have different views of the Pilot: David, the early adopter and literal poster boy for the Pilot’s success, who finds that the reality didn’t live up to the promise; Val, generally a bit of a Luddite, who doesn’t see a need for it; Julie, keen to keep up with the trends and pressured by the new workplace expectations; and Sophie, leader of the resistance, who grew up with Pilots as the norm but who can never have one due to her seizures. It could feel a bit formulaic to have such a variety of experiences within one family, but the characterisation is amazing, and it’s easy to see exactly why and how they end up with the opinions they do. I particularly loved that the rotating viewpoint meant that we got to see the same events from different perspectives, as well as see how they each interpreted each other’s behaviour – it’s a powerful reminder that everybody (even you) is an unreliable narrator working from only their side of the story.
The writing flows easily and the short chapters and relatability of the characters dragged me into the book easily – it’s very readable. However, I did find bits of We Are Satellites hard going emotionally, which I mean as praise! Pinsker’s talent for getting to the root of human experience meant that the family relationships in the book are drawn so accurately they sometimes hurt – since having a baby, I’m hit much more intensely by discussions of motherhood in fiction, and I particularly found some of Val and Julie’s thoughts about their kids growing up incredibly poignant. The teenage experience is brilliantly spot-on, too, that tug-of-war between the desire to grow up and break free and the desire to stay safe and looked-after and loved. There are several time-skips in the book, which is normally something I hate, but actually I loved how they worked with the story here, letting us see the kids grow up, and the world get used to the Pilots, in a very realistic way. It’s a story about breaking free of your family’s ways, but also about learning about them as individuals and maybe being stronger because of that; it will speak to anyone who’s experienced the weirdness of navigating a relationship over time, especially how those relationships change when one party moves from childhood to adulthood.
I really don’t want to spoil the plot, as I think you should go into this fairly cold and let it unfold before you, so this whole review is probably annoyingly vague, but I’m about to get vaguer! In the later sections of the book, there are some chapters from David’s point of view that have a totally different style than the rest of the book, and while that has the potential to be gimmicky, it absolutely works to hit home the point it’s making. I think a lot of people who have particular processing issues will find themselves very seen by his narration here – I certainly did, and honestly might end up pointing people to this book to explain how things can feel sometimes. David’s story on the whole is a very clever discussion of mental health, medical gaslighting, and coping mechanisms of various qualities, and I think he’s the character that will end up sticking with me the longest.
This is getting on for a very long review for me, so I’ll leave it there and just say this: Pinsker has to be the best near-future speculative writer out there at the moment. Both We Are Satellites and A Song for a New Day are just breathtakingly believable and unsettlingly possible. Brilliant stuff. Five out of five cats.