One of my favorite books from 2019 was Sarah Pinsker’s debut novel, A Song for a New Day. She so perfectly captured the search for hope within a fairly boring and mundane dystopia. When I read the description for her new book, I knew I wanted to get my hands on it. While it certainly hits differently than her previous book, We Are Satellites is a detailed and incredible human exploration of how technology and culture smash into each other, especially within American society.
We Are Satellites is the story of a single family as they navigate a world that is rapidly changing due to the invention called the pilot. The pilot is a neural implant that allows the user to focus better and multitask more efficiently. One, with the aid of a pilot, can enjoy a podcast, work on their excel spreadsheets, cook dinner and mind the children all at the same time. Julie and Val are the parents of David and Sophie. David has always kind of struggled in school, despite his best efforts and implores his parents to let him have a pilot installed so that he does not fall behind the other kids. Julie is on his side and convinces Val it would help him. Meanwhile, Sophie is unable to have a pilot due to her epilepsy, and in solidarity, Val chooses to remain pilot free herself. What follows is a story of how the family’s dynamic changes, with some of the problems being exacerbated by the technology.
The characters in Satellites are well drawn, and Pinsker’s writing truly captures their individual struggles. They all feel believable and relatable in small ways, from their daily tasks to their immediate reactions to small events. Each character feels like a unique individual, not a set of traits that revolve around a specific instinct. The parents are excellently written, showing their strong relationship deteriorate through the story as less and less care is given to it. Julie loves the next hot technology and feels she would be better at her job with the pilot, while Val remains skeptical. The children are equally interesting as they become the larger focus as the story progresses. David, who had a pilot installed as a teenager, is tortured by it and can’t get anyone to believe he is having trouble with it. Sophie, on the other hand, has to navigate the world without one, while also showing her own independence and ability to not rely on her mother’s constant worrying. Pinsker paints them so delicately and so beautifully it hurts to watch them unravel.
The story itself is small, with big implications, which seems to be Pinsker’s forte. Each chapter is a snapshot into the character’s lives, highlighting how the pilot has changed their interactions with the world. I found it particularly enjoyable that the book doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s building to anything grand, but remains compelling nonetheless. The story is the people and their lives, not some overarching world domination plot, or cheap shots at dystopia. Pinsker sells this by having each character’s life play out as a reaction to the events in another character’s life. The shift from the parents being the focal point, to the lives of their children was especially well done and highlighted the slow, nearly invisible march of “progress” and “change.”
When it comes down to it, Pinsker is truly a visionary when it comes to dissecting the cultural impact of a new technology. In the beginning, she plays an even hand, looking at the costs and the benefits to the pilot technology. Gradually though, Pinsker reveals how some are destined to be left behind by it, whether by privilege or due to conditions like epilepsy, and how those with access and more “conventional” brains will be catapulted by the advancement. She is also incredible at showing how such a technology would infect every aspect of being, to the point where not having one, or reacting poorly to one would ultimately marginalize you. She shows how businesses would look at you differently for not having one, by seeing you as less productive than someone with one, or how other people would consider you lesser on this road to a more “post-human” future. How government programs would be tailored to fitting people with one, instead of helping those without one. In particular, subsidy and grant programs to give them to children living below the poverty line so they may become more “productive” citizens. My favorite part is that she flirts with dystopia, showing it in it’s full regalia of everyday life, instead of explicitly stating “you’re in hell.”
We Are Satellites is a great example of how technological dystopias come to pass. Pinsker does not beat you over the brow, saying “look how terrible it all is.” Instead, she shows you the steady slide into a “new” normal that most people didn’t ask for, but they bought it anyway. Through her diverse cast, she explores how different people with different jobs, priorities, mindsets, goals, and conditions interact with this new world. How change can just happen, slowly and without pomp and circumstance until it isn’t change at all, it’s how it has always been. She also does it with a levity and care that makes it more digestible than most dystopias. All this, while reminding the reader that one still has a choice when it comes to change.
Rating: We Are Satellites – 9.0/10