We Are Satellites
By Sarah Pinsker
I received an ARC of We Are Satellites from Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.
Pinsker’s latest (and my introduction to her work), succeeding the Nebula Award-winning A Song for a New Day, qualifies as science fiction in only the most technical sense—it follows middle-class parents Val and Julie and their kids, David and Sophie, in a near future where “Pilots” are introduced: surgically-implanted devices which (supposedly) allow the brain to effectively process stimuli from multiple sources at once. What at first seems to be a fad, indicated by a blue light visible on the temple, becomes more entrenched. David wants one. Sophie can’t get one. Julie feels obligated to get one. Val refuses. The family splits apart.
We Are Satellites shines in its first half. Pinsker’s portrayal of the way technology creeps into our lives feels entirely organic, as does the way it fractures the family at the heart of the book. Minor escalations eventually become major rifts, and I never got the sense that she was stretching the internal logic of the fictional world for the sake of creating conflict or advancing the story. I also appreciated the fairness with which Pinsker treats technology, at least in the early sections of the novel. There are flavors of Black Mirror here for sure, but We Are Satellites is less interested in technological fearmongering and asserts a more nuanced, and therefore more compelling, view of our future and the devices which will inevitably influence social and cultural norms.
It is likely for this reason that I found Val and Julie to be the most engaging characters in the book (and why I found the first half better than the second; more on that in a bit). I won’t say that their decisions regarding Pilots carry more weight or risk more devastating consequences than those decisions do for David and Sophie—that is demonstrably untrue within the context of the novel—but as parents, more variables factor into those decisions. This created, for me, a reading experience in which I was deeply attuned to the subtle complexities of the issues around which the book revolves. Pinsker’s writing facilitates this. We Are Satellites is a novel in which subtext is nearly a foreign concept; the motivations and perceptions of the four POV characters are laid out plainly within their chapters, refusing the reader any opportunity to extrapolate from the text.
This is a double-edged sword. I appreciated, especially in the first half, the transparency—I always knew exactly why Val, Julie, David, and Sophie did what they did or believed what they believed, which meant I was sympathetic to all of their perspectives and could focus on how those perspectives brought them into conflict with one another. But as the book moves into its second half and the children move to the forefront of the story, the problems with this writing style become more…problematic. It mostly works for David as his story permits Pinsker some syntactic flexibility; as his mental health deteriorates, so too does the coherence of his internal narration. This isn’t a particularly innovative tool, but Pinsker employs it effectively.
Sophie is the weak link, narratively speaking. She comes across as a caricature, almost a parody, of someone passionate about social justice (someone like me), and I had difficulty deciphering whether her maddening inability to be anything other a blunt instrument was an intentional facet of her character or an oversight on Pinsker’s part. I was particularly bothered by a scene in which Sophie tells—doesn’t ask, tells—attendees at a meeting to include their pronouns when introducing themselves. Did Sophie stop to consider that she might be forcing someone to out themself around strangers in a public setting? Nope. If this bullheaded behavior was meant to reveal something meaningful about Sophie’s character, great. But since no one calls out her actions as inappropriate, and since the writing offers no opening to read between the lines, and since there is no indication in the text of any self-awareness on Sophie’s part, I am inclined to believe that the novel, and therefore Pinsker, is providing tacit endorsement of what she does. (I used the word “inclined” intentionally; I can’t prove this is true and would love to be wrong.)
Like Sophie, the book as a whole loses its grip on nuance in the second half. Sentimentality becomes saccharine, the lines between good and evil become more clear-cut, and diversity and social justice issues become more of a checklist than a natural part of the narrative (there are two non-cis characters, and the differences in how they are handled is striking—one is exemplary, the other is not). Fortunately, We Are Satellites remains immensely readable throughout, and the momentum of David’s plotline is strong enough to carry the novel through its roughest patches; it is a piercingly-accurate portrayal of anxiety that was all-too-real for me, and this storyline gets better and better even as Sophie’s does the opposite. The quality is consistently inconsistent.
And then there’s the epilogue—only several pages, a single scene, but so egregious that I ultimately dropped my overall star rating of the book from four stars to three. The closest pop culture comparison I can think of is the final shot in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite: it does nothing but drag an otherwise elegant ending (which, prior to the epilogue, I loved for its grace and light touch) out from the realm of subtlety and into the frustrating domain of didacticism. Subtext becomes text, and I can almost imagine Pinsker looking directly into the figurative camera and explaining the theme. It’s a bit insulting and a needlessly sour note upon which to end the novel.
I’ll wrap up by saying this: if you’re looking for a book group selection, this is it (I co-facilitate multiple book groups and preview dozens of books yearly for each of them, so I think you can trust me on this). As evidenced by the discussion questions included in my ARC, this is a novel which seems designed to check every book group box—it will appeal to fans of both literary and speculative fiction, spans a variety of perspectives from characters of various ages, genders, and sexual orientations, and will surely spark rich, relevant, and resonant conversations about how technology intersects and clashes with class, family, politics, disability, education, capitalism, imperialism, nationalism, mental illness, social justice, and drug use/abuse (there’s a lot going on in this novel, but it never feels like too much). Although not without major problems, there is so much to like about We Are Satellites, and I am looking forward to reading more from Pinsker.
We Are Satellites will be published May 11th, 2021.
Review by Erin Larson