Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

a review by Rich Horton

Sarah Pinsker has written a lot of outstanding short fiction (and has two Nebulas to show for that), and her first novel, A Song for a New Day, also won a Nebula. So this, her second novel, has a lot to live up to. I "read" it, as I have with many novels since I got my Audible subscription, via listening to it. (In all honesty, the narration wasn't my favorite -- some of it was (probably unfair on my part) reaction to the voice, but also I wasn't quite convinced by how she changed voices between characters, and some of the phrasing didn't seem right to me.) Anyway, how does We Are Satellites stack up?

It's set in the very near future, and it concerns the reactions of a family of four to a new technology. The family consists of Val, a schoolteacher and running coach; her wife Julie, a chief of staff for a member of the House of Representatives; and their children, David, who is in high school as the action starts, and Sophie, a few years younger, who has epilepsy. The new technology is called a "pilot" -- a brain implant which, in essence, allows the brain to multitask much more efficiently. This tech is originally adopted by high school age kids (at least as we see) and David quickly wants one, noticing that his fellow students are doing better in class.

That sets up the central issue driving the book -- for Val is immediately, viscerally, opposed to pilots, and to David getting one; while Julie is open to letting David get one, and moreover she wants one herself. There is a political side illuminated by her position -- her boss is getting one, and most of the other people in her office are as well. Beyond that, BNL, the company making the pilots, is based in their district, so there are lots of jobs on the line -- and even some financial assistance for those who want a pilot. As for Sophie, her epilepsy makes her ineligible to get one.

This sets up some immediate, and interesting, social problems. One is solved quickly -- if pilots are expensive, won't they only increase the divide between the haves and have-nots? BNL, however, offers them for free to those who can't afford them. But there are still people on the "outside" -- those who can't (or won't) get a pilot -- people like Sophie, who can't, and Val, who won't.

The personal issue becomes fraught when David graduates, and instead of going to college accepts an offer to join the Army, which sees tremendous potential for soldiers using pilots. But this unites Julie and Val, who both hate the idea of David joining the military, purely (as portrayed) as mothers, who fear for their son's safety. Meanwhile, Sophie has made a friend at school, and her friend, led by his father, is part of a pilot resistance group, which Sophie joins. The other key development is in David's head -- the pilot gives him the ability to multitask, indeed -- but to a fault. He notices EVERYTHING, which is very distressing, and which he calls "Noise".

I won't detail the further developments, but we see the lives of David and Sophie develop as they grow into adulthood; and we see Val and Julie weather some serious crises in their marriage (caused mostly by lack of communication, which is blamed largely on Julie (and her errors are severe) but somehow some similarly terrible lapses by Val seem forgotten ...) 

So -- how did it work for me? Well, it was a mixed bag. The central idea is outstanding -- plausible, and worth examining, and much of the examination is spot on. But the plot ends up ensnarled in a really sort of cliche "evull corporation" thread. But more to the point, very often I had a hard time believing things. Some of this was character stuff that could be laid at the feet of characterization -- why don't people communicate more? Maybe that really is true to the characters, but if Julie, Val, and perhaps especially David (about his "noise") had actually talked more, things might have been much different. But there are other things -- there's a subplot involving a stolen corporate badge that I simply rejected, as someone who works for a defense contractor and has a badge -- the scheme would not have worked. And Sophie's resistance effort seems based more on the conviction that since she doesn't like pilots (because she can't get one herself?) the corporation that makes them must be up to something. (One of the speeches against pilots reminded me only too much of an anti-vaxxer's screed.) The fact that in this book, her suspicions end up true (for reasons that, again, I didn't quite buy) doesn't seem to me to justify getting there for the wrong reasons. (Especially as it's easy to imagine similar technology being critical to HELP people with epilepsy -- granting that in this future it didn't work, but what if a treatment for epilepsy also turned out to give people the same boost that pilots do? Where would Sophie stand? Even though some of the other, very worthwhile, issues with pilots would remain?)

So -- that sounds negative. But -- I still really liked the book. Why -- partly because Pinsker creates characters we like and root for, and who have real world problems that matter. Also -- the posited technology, the pilots, is both believable, and of real benefits -- but with real problems. I might well be guilty of the reviewer's worst sin -- wanting the author to write the book they want, instead of the book the author meant to read -- but I feel like the central concept is really cool, and the characters will support a nuance examination of some wrenching issues, so it's almost a copout to let things turn on corporate malfeasance instead of a close confrontation with truly troubling implications of a technology that can help, but that also has a dark side. For me, that would have been a more ambiguous novel -- but in the end more interesting.

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