Often in magical realism, a writer takes one little bit of magic and plunks it into an otherwise entirely realistic story, like adding a single drop of blue food dye into a glass of water that remains water, but water newly, wholly colored by that one tiny drop. In Sarah Pinsker’s novel, We Are Satellites (2021), we have what one might class science-fictional realism; she eschews building the usual futuristic world full of advances and instead offers up a single drop in the form of the Pilot, a brain implant that allows the wearers to multitask without loss of focus, making them incredibly efficient.
Pinsker further narrows the story by focusing like a laser on a single family and the varying impact the introduction of the Pilot into society has on each member, crafting a quiet, character-driven story, a sort of domestic science fiction novel that explores a big issue via a narrow prism. We see flashes of a broader societal impact, but we’re mostly concerned about these specific people, though we can extrapolate from their successes and struggles to the society at large.
The family is made up of mothers Val and Julie (in one of the stronger aspects of the novel, this relationship isn’t a “thing”; it just is) and children David and Sophie, an older teen and a ten-year-old respectively. In the early part of the story, Pilots are just beginning to be introduced into society, with Val, a teacher at a posh private school, noticing the telltale blue LED light at the temple on some of the more privileged students. In short order, David is asking for one, noting he’s one of the last in the school (he goes there thanks to her job) to get one, and thus begins the first bit of dissension in the family. Val isn’t a fan of brain surgery; Julie, who has seen it in the younger workers at the Congressman’s office she works at not only understands David’s desire for one but wants one herself; and Sophie, who has epileptic seizures, can’t get one.
Val resists, but even she knows, “people want what they want. She dragged her heels at every step, but never stopped anyone, ever…” Even David’s teacher pressures her into accepting the inevitable, warning her David is falling behind thanks to “his peers with Pilots using their time more efficiently . . . It’s an optimizer. They get more out of their brains.” Eventually Val gives in. Not long after David gets his Pilot, which does help him at school though there are hints of problems to come, he (much to Val and Julie’s dismay) joins the army as part of a special program for Piloted recruits.
Tensions and divisions continue to rise in the family over the next few years go by. Julie gets a Pilot as well so as not to fall behind at work, while Val becomes one of the few teachers without one and is thus relegated to teaching the “Non-Piloted Students”, who have quickly become a minority. Meanwhile, Sophie (an NPS herself), as she ages into an older teen, joins the anti-Pilot movement, putting herself on the opposite side of her brother, who on his return from the army takes a job as an ambassador for the company that produces Pilots, even though his early problems have worsened.
Each of the characters gets their own POVs in a large number of chapters that vary greatly in length, with equally varied jumps in time between them, from an immediate chronological flow to a hop of weeks or months (sometimes many). David, thanks to his issue with the Pilot overstimulating him, has the most distinct and highly stylized voice:
standing on the landing … standing on the edge of the city, standing outside a door that was the only barrier between him and more noise more noise it was already spilling out under the door and through the windows. Noise to add to his noise noise on noise on noise … he smiled and drained his drink and said he needed another and made his escape and all the time his eyes were on the door the window the patterns of the crowd the songs the slight rattle in the bass notes from the speaker by the kitchen where he shoved his hands into the ice in the red cooler looking for another beer but also looking for the numbing cold for a moment numbing cold to numb his brain.
(BTW, most of his chapters are not so stylized.)
While David goes through major life changes in terms of his choices/decisions, Sophie is the one whom we see change the most, thanks to her being so young when we meet her. While Pinsker presents the text version of an ensemble cast, if this is anyone’s story, I’d say it’s Sophie’s, and one of the true pleasures of the story is watching her blossom into selfhood, moving out from under the loving-but-overly-watchful dominance of her two mothers. With regard to their own POVs, I’ll confess that despite their clear differences, I had a harder time keeping their voices distinct, though that may be simply a matter of both of them being middle-aged adults. They certainly have different personalities and reactions to events.
While those events (David’s enlisting, Sophie’s seizures, Julie’s job requirements) are part and parcel of the cause-and-effect chain of plot points, at least as responsible, if not more, are their personal choices in how to respond to events. Pinsker has no interest in presenting perfect human beings here; all of them have their flaws, all of them can be prickly or worse, none of them are as consistently honest and transparent as they need to be to navigate these tricky shoals, and so they constantly end up in worse places than necessary had they only spoken more to each other, only trusted each other more. You can’t help but wince at some of their choices, yet you also can’t help but admit that you’ve probably made similarly bad-on-their-face choices at various times in your life (at least if you’re older than ten). The kind of choices you know are wrong, are bad, are going to lead down the wrong path, but some demon voice in you cajoles and convinces you that somehow (magic!) a twist will arise that will save you from yourself. It’s no spoiler to say that rarely occurs.
Meanwhile, this microcosm of a family can be extrapolated outward into the macrocosm of this new society created by the Pilot, as issues of transparency, trust, and bad choices are enacted on a wider scale. All of these more hidden layers occurring against a backdrop of more obvious concerns about the impact of such a device on society: inequality (as Julie muses, “There was never such thing as equally poor, someone always had less of one thing or more of another”), discrimination against the differently abled, the way “progress” always seems to start as a personal choice but quickly becomes a requirement, the often corrupt ties between industry and government, what we as a country ask of our soldiers and what we do with them once they’ve sacrificed some part of themselves to meet our demands, the ways in which technology becomes, as Neal Postman put it, “mythic,” so that it quickly becomes immune to attempts to reign it in or strongly regulate it. And of course, beyond the society of the story itself, it’s easy to see how a novel that examines the impact of enhanced (and encouraged) “multi-tasking” and that via one character labels such activity “noise” can be applied to our own always on, always connected world.
We Are Satellites is a mostly successful work, though not, like its characters, without its flaws. At times I felt some of the themes/echoes were presented too bluntly, though I find I’m often more desirous of trusting the reader to make connections than a lot of the audience is, so mileage may certainly vary on that. Occasionally some sections read a bit dryly matter of fact, more reportage than narrative (this mostly occurred in the mothers’ POVs), though I want to emphasize this happened only in scattered sections, not across an entire chapter or more.
Finally, the ending feels both a bit rushed and a bit too pat, somewhat in the family dynamics but mostly in the attempt to broaden the domestic novel into a more broadly societal one. I understand the need to make that jump, but it didn’t feel as well executed or polished as the exploration of the family both as individuals and as a unit (well, sometimes a unit).
That said, We Are Satellites was certainly entertainingly engaging but equally as important, it also was thought provoking, showing that one needn’t create an entire panoply of futuristic devices or settings to write a science fiction novel that will stay in your head.