I was not going to bypass a story pitched as THE MARTIAN for teens, and SATELLITE fills its brief fabulously: you won’t be disappointed if you come looking for realistic space-exploration science. But this book delivered lots, lots more…so much that I’m planning to read it again.
SATELLITE follows 15-year-old Leo Freeman, one of the first babies to be born and raised on a space station, after his astronaut mom was discovered to be pregnant once in orbit. Leo’s got two older friend-“siblings” from a different mom, who got together with another fellow astronaut when they were on a long-term research program in orbit, part of preparation for human colonisation-journeys to other worlds.
The story begins just as a big change is coming for Leo and his friends Orion and Libra: after growing up in orbit, the three are being recalled to earth by the public-private “Company” who’ve funded the research.
And here’s the novel’s fantastic central concept: is earth home for humans who’ve never been on it? What unfolds is a story that explores this issue from every angle, and never disappoints.
RACE AND SPACE
I was excited to see that the main characters, the Freemans, are a black American family. It’s not just the children’s book industry who’s looking for more diverse books, my 12 year-old has frequently asked why the hero in stories is so rarely black, so I look forward to pressing SATELLITE into his hands.
Yet Lake’s story sidesteps the question of what it’s like to be black or even American — except perhaps in a single plot development that involves the Russians wanting to get their own back against NASA (The Russians have been left out of the modern space age after a megamerger of the US and Indian space programs with private enterprise.)
With neither race nor nationhood in play, the focus is all on family – or rather on the hothouse version of family that results when three generations of the Freemans give their lives to the Company, and to its mission to secure humanity’s survival beyond a dying Earth by settling new worlds.
A SPACE FOR LANGUAGE
As a writer, I was desperately in love with Lake’s masterful, pencil-sketch worldbuilding – this is a future with subtly different gender politics, as we see from cues like women who choose gene mods to give facial hair, male farmhands with chipped nail polish, and other men with ‘no makeup at all.’
Prepare for your heart to break at the plausible descriptions of the environment (“I thought most wild animals had gone extinct,” Leo muses); and if you’re a language nut like me, you’ll love the subtle changes to English (the capital ‘I’ is now lower case, you is now ‘u,’ see is ‘c’.)
So, this is the world of SATELLITE – a near-future ecological dystopia with subtly different gender politics, where race is a non-issue (one of the only things I struggled to believe in the story), and where it’s somehow ok to raise toddlers in zero g, where they need to be strapped to treadmills to strengthen their muscles.
If you love space science, incidentally, you won’t be disappointed, because the physics is there (I think?): I’m no orbital mechanic, but the carry-on about gimbals and attitude control all sounds plausible and terrifying, and memorable phrases help the young reader (and me) grasp key precepts of space flight: “speed means height when you’re in orbit.”
The book feels true to its billing as THE MARTIAN for younger readers: there’s the same sense of inflexible, military-style protocols; repetition and preparation; and the all-important “boldface,” procedures that are written in bold text in process manuals and followed religiously, because they’ve saved someone’s life once.
But for a story that’s so redolent of science, SATELLITE also oozes poetry, on what feels like every page. I lost count of the paragraphs I wanted to highlight: Leo’s and philosophical reflections are all so quotable. I loved how Leo plays with language, and how he struggles to describe the alien beauty of nature with similes that never feel quite right to him; something in it reminded me of Jandy Nelsons’s THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, and the way Lennon understands the world through music.
Here’s a scene where Leo’s recently been told by his Grandpa that, now Leo has come down to earth, the world is his oyster. Leo is stepping out into the fresh air from the Company test facility and getting his first good look at the blue sky and horizon:
“…the view is amazing: grass rolling away over gently undulating earth all the way to the sharp horizon, where the earth gives way to that shining blue-silk sky; & i feel the sharpness of the horizon too, it does something to me, it hinges open something inside me, like the blade of a knife, it shucks me, like an oyster. the world isn’t my oyster, i think.
the world is a knife.
i am the oyster.”
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
The book has my favourite trope ever: the outsider observes the strange new world he’s been thrust into. From the picture book DR. XARGLE’S BOOK OF EARTHLETS to Matt Haig’s THE HUMANS, other-stories have always been my preference, so I knew a treat was in store when it became clear that Leo and the others were on course to return to earth and experience everything for the first time. Birdsong. Fresh air. Ice cream.
And deception. There’s a lot of deception that begins to unravel, and Leo will need to decide what life he wants. There’s more than just Earth’s 1g gravity weighing him down, now that Leo is on the surface: there’s the changed relationship with his family, and with the Company that’s monitored his every heartbeat since his birth in orbit. Going against them is almost unthinkable, but with the trust broken, going along with them is impossible.
SATELLITE is a fantastic read, and yet another reminder that some of the best new literature in English can be found on the YA shelf.
ARC provided by: NetGalley
Published: Hodder October 2017 UK
Goodreads and Amazon rating: 5 stars
Satellite by Nick Lake, Published in the UK 17 October Hodder