This is the future?
We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker, seems like such a likely thing to happen in our lifetime (and keep in mind that I’m getting older!) that it hardly feels like science fiction. It also perfectly highlights the concept of privilege in a new arena.
Val and Julie are a middle-aged same-sex couple with two children: David, who is Julie’s child, and Sophie, who they adopted after the first pregnancy proved so perilous that it was unwise to consider a second. They are a solidly middle-class couple, Val working as a high school athletics teacher and coach while Julie is an assistant to a prominent senator. They are however, by no means well off, so when David comes home from his exclusive school (his attendance only made possible by the fact that Val teaches there) asking for a Pilot, the latest brain-enhancing technological marvel that all his wealthy classmates are getting, they at first treat it as just another fad whose importance will fade in a few weeks or months. But the brain implant instead becomes a fixture, first in schools as a way to enhance learning and performance, and then in the world at large to promote people’s abilities to multi-task, and soon the implications of being without one can’t be avoided.
Val and Julie reluctantly agree that David can get one, but it’s out of the question for Sophie, who has epileptic seizures and is therefore permanently incompatible. Julie secretly longs to adopt the technology to cope with the ever-expanding duties of her job in the political arena, and soon peer pressure makes it possible for her to claim the necessity. Val is suspicious of the technology and decides to hold out and be Pilotless. Thus the family ends up being the perfect microcosmic showcase for the issues caused by the Pilot in the larger society: Those who adopt the technology move ahead, while those without its supposed benefits are left behind. Soon such things as the dividing of students into classes of the enhanced vs. classes of those who are not begins to draw sharp lines that are also echoed in the adult world. Val, as an abstainer, soon finds herself teaching only classes in which the students don’t have the Pilot. Val and Julie begin to notice differences between them specifically brought up by the effects of the Pilot on Julie. Sophie is outraged by the overt classism and gets involved with a protest group. And David, who joins the military, has issues of his own…
The book is written in four voices—the two moms and the two kids—and gives the overall experience of this innovation from each of their viewpoints, as well as illustrating what can happen in the larger world when a technology is universally acclaimed, and the private sector unites with the government to promote it without truly considering all the ramifications. The technology becomes yet another point of contention, with the haves and the have-nots squared off against one another as the acquisition of the Pilot becomes the new normal.
This is not an action-packed book, although quite a bit happens in each of the four protagonists’ lives; it is, rather, a slow uneasy build towards the revelation of the consequences a hastily adopted innovation could have on a society unprepared for its effects. As the family navigate the changes the technology brings, they struggle with both interior and exterior conflicts, the author moving between points of view but always keeping the overall focus on the family as a unit so that the effects can really be seen as a whole. The technology and the secrets surrounding it (let’s face it, public relations and marketing people are hardly going to reveal negative effects of a positively received product!) are the main thread that moves the narrative, but the characters end up being the heart of the story.
As a science fiction fan, I would have liked a little more explication of the device itself—with what part of the brain it interacts, how specifically it was invented and tested, and so on—but this is, of course, where science fiction sometimes punts, particularly in the hands of a less experienced author. We are, ironically, asked to take the science on faith and focus rather on the outcome. But this scenario seemed like such a likely one that I didn’t really mind that much. And I loved the implications of the little blue LED light that indicated the Pilot’s presence or absence in an individual’s brain.
Although two of the characters in this book start out as teenagers and are still young by the end of the story, this book seems primarily geared towards adult readers. It has a certain dispassionate tone, even in moments of great emotion, that might put off some readers. But if you enjoy the adult titles in particular of Cory Doctorow, with their exploration of the sometimes abrupt and divisive effects of technology on the prevailing culture, you will probably equally enjoy We Are Satellites.
Note: I think the cover is so odd—the children are both in their teens at the start of this story, and I can’t figure out why they depicted an adult and child on the cover. I find the title less than descriptive as well.