We Are Satellites

We Are Satellites

by Sarah Pinsker


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"Taut and elegant, carefully introspected and thoughtfully explored."—The New York Times

From award-winning author Sarah Pinsker comes a novel about one family and the technology that divides them.

Everybody's getting one.

Val and Julie just want what’s best for their kids, David and Sophie. So when teenage son David comes home one day asking for a Pilot, a new brain implant to help with school, they reluctantly agree. This is the future, after all. 

Soon, Julie feels mounting pressure at work to get a Pilot to keep pace with her colleagues, leaving Val and Sophie part of the shrinking minority of people without the device.  

Before long, the implications are clear, for the family and society: get a Pilot or get left behind. With government subsidies and no downside, why would anyone refuse? And how do you stop a technology once it's everywhere? Those are the questions Sophie and her anti-Pilot movement rise up to answer, even if it puts them up against the Pilot's powerful manufacturer and pits Sophie against the people she loves most.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984802606
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 183,438
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Sarah Pinsker's Nebula and Sturgeon Award-winning short fiction has appeared in Asimov's and F&SF, as well as numerous other magazines, anthologies, and translation markets. She is a singer/songwriter who has toured behind three albums on various independent labels. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, was released in early 2019 by Small Beer Press. A Song for a New Day is her first novel. She lives with her wife in Baltimore, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


There was a blue light in the balcony. Val lingered in the stage wing, looking out on a darkened auditorium and one illicit pinprick, electric blue. The girls squirmed and tapped their feet and whispered to one another by the glow of the ancient anti-­drunk-­driving smash-­’em-­up film. A mournful pop song that had been old long before she herself hit high school gave their boredom a soundtrack.

The school had a strict policy on electronics: no checking phones except between classes, tablets in school mode to allow work and emergency contact, but no social media. She slipped away from the stage. The light probably wasn’t worth chasing, but this assembly always felt interminable, and the hunt gave her something to do.

Around the back and up the stairs and then she was there, scanning the darkness for the steady light she had noticed from below. Only seniors were allowed to sit in the balcony, and most had skipped the assembly. There was supposed to be a teacher up here, but she couldn’t remember who had been assigned; if they were here, maybe they weren’t at the right angle to notice whatever she had seen. She spotted it again, still the same tiny light though now she was closer. It twinned itself as she made her way down the aisle.

“Phones off, girls,” she whispered, though she didn’t see any devices out.

Nobody moved. One student had a binder open on her lap, but Val wasn’t policing that. She settled in a vacant seat, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. She saw blue again, a flash in the dark as a girl across the aisle regathered her microbraids in a ponytail. Val thought at first it was a ring on a finger, but no, it hadn’t been on the girl’s hand. An LED earring, maybe? She descended to the railing, on the pretext of looking over the edge, then turned. As she looked up again, the fiery car crash on the screen below illuminated the girls in the balcony.

“And when I turned again, I realized they weren’t earrings. Two girls had lights embedded in their temples! Tell me this isn’t some new fad, please.”

An hour after the assembly, Val recounted the experience to Angela Lin, soccer coach and history teacher, in the cafeteria. Both had brought their own food to lunch duty.

“I can tell you, but I’d be lying.” Angie motioned with her celery stick at a nearby table, where several girls had the tiny blue lights at the edge of their hairlines.

Val groaned. “What is it? Head studs instead of ear studs?”

“Some new study gadget, I think.”

“A study fad? Is that an oxymoron?” She was glad to hear they were new; disconcerting to think she’d missed something like this for long.

“Maybe. I only started noticing them a few weeks ago. Haven’t gotten to looking into them beyond what one of my players told me.”

Val eyed the students. She couldn’t tell from this distance whether it was adhesive or a piercing or what. She didn’t know anyone in the group, which meant they didn’t run track, and none were freshmen; she taught freshman gym and geography in addition to coaching. As she watched, one girl without the light reached out and touched the light on another’s head; she looked thoughtful.

“Is it something we’re going to get a memo about?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure it’s legal, for now at least, and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. Attention boosting has to help us, right?”

“I guess so. What if your goalkeeper comes in with one? Or Grover High’s goalkeeper faces off against your girl with one when yours doesn’t have one?”

Angela bit her lip. “Good question.”

“Is it pricey?”

“I really don’t know. I’d guess so, given who has them. That’s a corporate lawyer’s daughter and a pro football player’s daughter sitting next to each other. I don’t know the other girls, but they have expensive-­looking hair. Next week we’ll probably be seeing fakes or knockoffs or other colors. You know how it goes.”

Val did.

She watched for the lights in her classes after lunch, but didn’t see any on her freshmen. A couple more students with them passed her in the hallway. They didn’t act any different from the other girls.

Val wasn’t much for boosters in general. She’d seen a fair number, legal and illegal, and thought they were better left out of the equation. She tried to teach her runners, rich and scholarship alike, that it all came down to their feet and their heads, the physical and the mental.

The same went for the new technologies that appeared in the school, outpacing her own glacial change. Inevitably she came around to one conclusion: people want what they want. She dragged her heels at every step, but never stopped anyone, ever, an anchor without enough weight behind it, slowing the ship without the ability to keep it from running aground. Metaphors weren’t really her thing, but she tried. She tried. Whatever this fad was, she’d deal with it as she had all the previous ones.

Chapter Two


By the time David started flat-out begging, he really was one of only a few boys left at his school who didn’t have a Pilot. Val had watched it happen at the school where she taught, the sister school to his. If half her students had them by the time class had let out for summer, three quarters had them when they returned in the fall. She had no doubt his school was equally awash.

“You’re a scholarship kid among rich kids,” she pointed out over dinner. “You know better than to get hung up on not having something they have.”

She piled brown rice onto her plate before passing the rest along and helping herself to the next bowl’s contents, steamed broccoli. Her health kick put the whole family on a health kick, so as far as she could tell they were busy resenting her for that, too. David sat opposite her, his gangly body rigid with annoyance. The food hadn’t reached him yet, and he clenched his empty plate in two white-­knuckled fists, like a steering wheel.

“Next you say, ‘I grew up with nothing, and that’s how I learned I didn’t need anything to be happy.’ ” As David said the words, Sophie mouthed them along with him, and Julie stifled a laugh. Was she that predictable?

“But you went to public school, Ma. I’m different already. Why make me even more different? It’s not like the surgery is expensive.” He must have seen Val cringe at the word “surgery,” because he changed his approach. “Who ever heard of parents refusing their kid something that helps him study better?”

“I go to public school, right?” Sophie asked.

“Yes,” said Julie, spooning rice onto her own plate, then their daughter’s. “Until you’re old enough to go where Ma teaches.”

Julie passed the rice back to Val, and the rest of the serving dishes made their way around the table to each of them in turn. David relaxed his death grip on the dinnerware to heap rice, then broccoli, then half a chicken onto his plate. They always served him last these days, a forced measure after the night an entire French bread disappeared before his mothers and sister had gotten any. Making more didn’t help; his teenage stomach expanded to greet whatever food arrived in front of him. Val had called him BC for a while, for “boa constrictor,” after she dreamed he’d unhinged his jaw to swallow the whole Thanksgiving turkey.

There was silence while they all chewed; Val hadn’t been patient enough with the rice and felt mildly guilty about it. She was a decent cook, as long as she didn’t rush things, but on school nights her poor family ate everything al dente.

A moment later, David raised his fork in triumph, a spear of broccoli impaled on the tines. “Think of the health benefits, Ma! I’d have more time. I could join the track team . . .”

Val exchanged a look with Julie. They’d been trying to get him into some kind of physical activity for two years. He had steadfastly refused to join any clubs or teams. They hadn’t pressed, as long as he kept up his schoolwork and spent dinner and the hour afterward with the family.

“Let us talk it over,” Julie said.

“Is that ‘I want to say no but I don’t feel like fighting over dinner’ or will you really talk it over?” he asked. Sophie giggled.

“Both,” Val said. “Time for a new topic. Sophie, how’s fourth grade treating you today?”

“My teacher farted during math.”

Julie’s shoulders started shaking. Val tried to hold it together. “That’s it? Did you learn anything?”

David grinned. “Maybe Sophie didn’t, but I guess the teacher learned not to eat beans for lunch.”

“How do you know what my teacher ate for lunch?”

“I know everything,” David said, waggling spooky fingers at his sister.

She looked impressed. Val glanced at Julie, knowing she, too, was savoring the moment of normalcy.

Reading Group Guide

Readers Guide:
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

Discussion Questions

1. We Are Satellites features four people: one who wanted a Pilot, one who felt he needed a Pilot, one who couldn’t have one, and one who didn’t want one. Would you want a Pilot?

2. Which character did you relate to the most, and what was it about them that you connected with?

3. How would you feel if everyone around you was getting an enhancement that you couldn’t get?

4. The novel looks at how Pilots affect education, sports, politics, the military, the workplace . . . What other facets of life can you see it affecting?

5. David’s point of view is conveyed in a distinct and unusual way. How did his “noise” affect your reading experience?

6. What would you have done in David’s position, with people not believing you when you explained what was going on in your head?

7. Sophie’s group used a number of tactics to accomplish their goals, some more successful than others. What worked, and what tactics were less effective?

8. What is Sophie looking for that puts her at odds with her parents? Does she achieve her goals?

9. How did the characters and their voices change throughout the book?

10. What did you think about the ways people in this family solved problems?

11. Has the novel given you anything to think about with regard to medical devices?

12. Are there any distinct images you came away with?

13. What is the metaphor of the satellites?

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