We Are Satellites
by Sarah Pinkser
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 23, 2021
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I received an advance e-book of Sarah Pinsker's second novel from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. We Are Satellites will be published on May 11. Like her first, this is set in the near future, but it's not as dystopic, and while the ending is slightly positive, there are some rough patches the characters have to work through. It's told in third-person, but alternates perspectives between four people in the same family. Val is a teacher and track coach at a private girls school; her wife Julie works in the local office of the district's Congressman; David is their son, Julie being his biological mother; Sophie is their adopted daughter, who after the adoption began having epileptic siezures. The title comes from an early scene, when Sophie asks Val if what she is seeing in the sky is a shooting star, but Julie says it's a satellite, and that the moon is a satellite of Earth too. Not stated, but implied, is that we are all satellites of each other, whether within a family or in society as a whole. Just as the combined gravitaional forces of the Earth and Moon keep each in a relatively stable orbit and rotation around the sun, a healthy family, or society, keeps things in balance. The problems arise when the balance is disturbed.
The SF element is a new technology, the Pilot, developed and marketed by Balkenhol Neural Laboratories. It is a neural implant designed to highten a person's cognitive abilites, to help them focus better, to get them close to true multi-tasking capability. David is quick to ask for a Pilot, since many at his school have them, and he is afraid of falling behind. Val is opposed to it for various reasons, mainly because it is a relatively new technology she knows little about, but Julie is more sympathetic to the idea. Sophie would not be eligible due to her medical condition, and Val promises her that even if everyone else gets Pilots, they will remain Pilot-less. Val finally relents and lets David get the implant, since by that time she has seen the majority of her students getting them. It does help David concentrate, and his grades improve, but he is not completely satisfied with his Pilot. He has a difficult time explaining, no one seems to understand what he is describing. Yes, he can concentrate on more than one thing at a time, but the input is too much, he says he can't block anything out, it all combines into nothing but 'noise.' Every time he mentions it to the people at BNL, they automatically fall back on rote replies, that he needs to repeat all the recommended exercises, and to use the app to dial back the intensity of the device. All of which he has done repeatedly, with no result.
By this time, Julie has also gotten a Pilot, since the Congressman and almost everyone that works for him has one too. Pilots are so pervasive Val fears her days as a teacher are limited, since the majority of the faculty have them, along with most students. Discrimination against the Pilot-less seems close at hand. Things come to a head when David declares he has joined the military, which both Val and Julie are opposed to, but he is an adult, he can make his own decisions. This is where the story starts to go off track, since it skips several years, many chapters pass without David's perspective. I wanted to know how he was able to deal with all the 'noise' and still be successful as a soldier, since when he finally does come back home he reports the same problem. Sophie knows she can't get a Pilot, doesn't want one, has become very vocal against them, joining an activist group called FreerMind. She is happy to see her brother again, but is furious with him when he says he is leaving the military and getting a job with Balkenhol. When he is still having problems with his Pilot, why would he become a spokesman and advocate for others to get the implant? Meanwhile, Sophie and her group's co-leader, plus an investigative journalist, begin discovering some incriminating evidence against Balkenhol. It had already been learned that the company had close ties to the military, and as more lawmakers got Pilots, subsidies for lower income groups to receive Pilots are authorized.
I have to avoid too many other details to steer clear of spoilers. I liked a lot about the book, but it missed the mark on a few details. One of those is something David learned while in the military, which was mentioned once, but it should have figured into the climax, and I can't figure out why Sarah dropped that. All of the problems the family suffered were due to lying or withholding information, or their inability to fully understand what the others were saying. Sophie and David finally resolved their issues, and became closer than they ever had been before. Val and Julie also reconciled, because they love each other, but I can't help but feel a part of their relationship would never be repaired. I hope I'm wrong. I'm giving this a soft recommendation, for the overall concept and several interesting characters, Sophie being my favorite, and the intricacy of some of the plot. Unfortunately, several enormous plot holes, and/or elements left unresolved, bring the rating down a bit.
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