Sarah Pinsker "...We Are Satellites is about one family and how they individually and collectively deal with a new technology. The new technology is a brain implant called the Pilot that helps you multi-task, and it gradually becomes the New Thing that everyone needs to have. The family’s son is the first to come home talking about it, saying that he’s falling behind in school because others have this implant, and that’s sort of how it begins for everyone. This family of four comes at it from four different perspectives, and we get to watch them cope and change over the course of a dozen years....."
You can tell how much Sarah Pinsker loves science fiction when you read any of her books. She is a Nebula award winner, a Locus nominated author and a Compton Crook Award nominee. She has a long history of loving the written word starting as a young child and she has turned that love into some great novels and short stories.
This month Sarah Pinsker is releasing her science fiction novel, We Are Satellites which takes on the influence of technology in our lives. I was fortunate to be able to ask Sarah some questions about her love of music, technology, and writing.
BWG: You are an avid songwriter as well as an author. Are there any parallels between song creation and story creation? Do they come from the same creative space in your head?
I do think they come from the same creative space, which in my head is labelled “storytelling.” To me that covers all styles and formats. I’m lucky enough (or I’ve spent enough time training myself) to be able to recognize stories when they arrive, and whether they want to be short fiction, songs, or novels. I’m a more disciplined fiction writer than songwriter, though. I’m better at sitting down and telling myself it’s time to work on a story.
BWG: Do you craft playlists to go with your stories?
I did for A Song For A New Day, and I’ll sometimes do so for a music-related story, but I can’t actually listen to music while I write. I can psych myself up with music, but I have to turn it off again before I start. I don’t need total silence – I’m a huge fan of writing in coffeeshops, with all the bustle and clamor – but if I’m listening to songs that I know and enjoy, they take up too much of my brain for me to get any writing done.
BWG: You had said that you are one of the rare authors who read “short stories as much as novels” when you were young. Tell me about that. What was it that attracted you to short stories?
They were always around the house! My father got the science fiction magazines, so we had decades of them lying around, and he also collected Year’s Best anthologies. My grade school English teacher introduced us to classic stories as well: “Harrison Bergeron,” “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” “Of Mist, And Grass, And Sand,” “The Ship Who Sang…” As a kid I also loved all of the “Microcosmic Tales” type-flash anthologies. All of those combined to teach me that there was a tremendous amount of power in a well-aimed short. I appreciated the authors’ ability to introduce an entire world, a character, a scenario, in such a small space. It’s a magic trick, conjuring images in someone else’s brain with your fiction, and doing it on a tight word budget is even more impressive.
BWG: What is a short story that highly affected you and why?
I’ll pick from the abovementioned. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a story that shouldn’t work. It’s only a couple of thousand words, and most of them are taken up in worldbuilding. But every word is poetry, and the nature of that poem changes as you learn the city’s secret. I particularly love the fact that it leaves so much room for you, the reader, to wrestle with the questions it poses. You can see that in all the wonderful response stories, like N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.”
Haha, um, I probably should. I’m not much of an advance plotter. My theory is usually to think so much about my characters that by the time I start working with them, they tell me where they want to go. With We Are Satellites I wrote an actual outline, after years of protesting the idea of outlines in general, and I discovered it was actually a useful tool that didn’t hinder me at all the way I was afraid it would. I still like to take the time to discover my characters and their situations as I write them, regardless of the length I’m writing.
BWG: You have two books that delve into how technology can change everyday life. The first in your award-winning novel, A Song For a New Day, and now your new book We Are Satellites. What got you interested in this theme?
We’re surrounded by technologies we don’t understand and accept because they bring us some degree of convenience or connection, from our phones to our increasingly computerized vehicles to our entertainment and so on. There’s a rich vein of exploration in the questions that those technologies bring with them. What do we gain? What do we lose? Is that “we” really universal? Are there human costs to the technology? Who is profiting? I think those are worthwhile questions to ask of every advance in every field, and there’s always plenty there to write about!
BWG: A Song for a New Day has such a cool vibe for both music lovers and science fiction lovers. It speaks to those who deeply love music. I know that you are a musician and have been in bands most of your life. Can you tell me a bit about how your love of music started?
I have no idea how my love of music started! My parents didn’t let me take music lessons until I asked three times –my mother had been forced to take piano lessons, and she didn’t want to do the same to us. I wanted drums, but we lived in New York, so I settled for a keyboard, which was okay. Not long after that, a cousin gave me an electric guitar, and it was love at first sight. I couldn’t even play three chords when I started my first band, in seventh grade. It just seemed like the thing to do. It didn’t matter that we were terrible. After that I played and played, took the occasional lesson, mostly taught myself. I started doing open mics in high school, and gigging in college. Playing music with people is such a joyous connection. It doesn’t matter if you know the same songs; you figure out where your language overlaps.
When I wrote the book it was meant as a warning. I didn’t want to see any of it come true! There’s a level of satisfaction in which I can look at the virtual concerts and plexiglass-ed restaurants and say, well, I guess I asked all the right “what if” questions, but I’d rather have been wrong. Even when this was getting started last spring, I looked around and said “I know what’s going to happen next,” and it was the world’s worst party trick.
I’ve spent the whole pandemic terrified for all my musician friends: the ones who rely on touring, but also the ones who rely on playing in retirement homes and restaurants. Not to mention the roadies and sound people, or the larger question of whether venues would even be there when we were allowed back in. I don’t know if we’ve seen the scope of the damage yet – how many small/midsize venues have been lost. There’s been good stuff that happened too, like being able to see some of my favorite acoustic musicians online, and Bandcamp’s generous monthly Fridays, but I’m still worried about music getting back on its feet.
BWG: For me, Luce Cannon has a Janis Joplin or Joan Jett vibe. Was she modeled after anyone specific?
She’s a mix of a bunch of specific people, but I love all the different names that people throw at me! Joan Jett’s definitely in there. I just named a bunch of them and then deleted it again, because I’d rather people tell me… though some of them are in the playlist above.
BWG: Can you tell me a bit about your new release, We Are Satellites?
We Are Satellites is about one family and how they individually and collectively deal with a new technology. The new technology is a brain implant called the Pilot that helps you multi-task, and it gradually becomes the New Thing that everyone needs to have. The family’s son is the first to come home talking about it, saying that he’s falling behind in school because others have this implant, and that’s sort of how it begins for everyone. This family of four comes at it from four different perspectives, and we get to watch them cope and change over the course of a dozen years.
BWG: What prompted the idea of the Pilot?
About ten years ago my old day job sent me to a lecture on new technologies in epilepsy treatment. One of the doctors talked about a new brain implant that had proven effective for another disorder, but not the one they had started with in mind. Somehow that got me thinking about if one of those seizure mitigation treatments turned out to have this side use, and a company decided to market it to the public instead. Which led to my usual tech questions of “who profits?” “who benefits?” “who gets left behind?”
BWG: This story is as much a near-future science fiction story as it is a character study on family dynamics. When thinking about the characters of the story, did they end up where you thought they would? Or did their journeys change as the story progressed?
I said that I started thinking about this ten years ago, but I left it aside for a number of years because I liked my beginning but I couldn’t quite picture where it needed to go. That took some maturing as a writer and some longterm marinating on the characters. The biggest thing was that I shifted from writing only in the perspective of Val, one of the parents, to only in the perspective of Sophie, the daughter, to both parents and the daughter, and the book didn’t actually start to work until I acknowledged that the son, David, needed a voice too. His voice was the one I was most intimidated to write, for reasons that will become clear, but once I figured out how to write him, it was an absolute joy.
GdM: I think that one of the best and most frightening aspects of We Are Satellites is that it is startlingly familiar. Technology continues to creep more and more into our lives. I can see the premise of the story happening and the class issues and familial issues that go with it. Was it unnerving to work on something that is so plausible?
I’m sort of used to working in plausible spaces at this point! I think I work close enough to now that I often run the risk of being lapped by real technology, like the fact that Elon Musk is talking about voluntary brain implants. I like playing the “what if” game, and I like wrestling with real implications, and I like wrestling with real implications for larger society through a narrow and personal lens. The unnerving part with A Song For A New Day was living with that isolated world in my head for so long, letting it go, and having it fly right back at me with the pandemic. So now people just have to listen to me when I say not to be the first to get a fad brain implant just because everyone else is.
BWG: Lastly, what are you reading right now?
I’m reading Isabel Yap’s great new Small Beer collection, Never Have I Ever.