When Erika Satifka’s debut novel, Stay Crazy, won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2017, dystopian literature about the erosion of economic opportunity and the rise of powerful corporations felt prescient. Now, in the year 2021, it feels almost heartwarmingly prosaic. Though not necessarily set in the same reality, Satifka’s novella Busted Synapses shows the economic systems that were strained in the American landscape of that earlier novel now completely broken.
Stay Crazy (which I reviewed for Black Gate) centered around Emmeline Kalberg, who may have been instrumental in stopping the advances into our universe of a malevolent being, or who may simply have been having a series of psychotic episodes. In either case, Satifka’s treatment was a compelling, compassionate, and humorous examination of the struggle of living with mental health issues in Middle America. It was also a devastating portrait of life in a small town that was being economically gutted by big-box stores, as a Walmart-equivalent provided the main setting for the book’s action and the means by which the (possibly real) malevolent entity drained psychic energy from the town’s inhabitants. The beauty of Satifka’s set-up was that it worked on both levels: whether or not the supernatural element was actual, there was an existential struggle taking place for the soul of the town.
If there were parallels with the writings of Philip K. Dick in Stay Crazy, in Satifka’s latest work those lines become even clearer. Stay Crazy was a novel for the early Trump presidency, but Busted Synapses is a picture of things after the storm. The East Coast of the United States is gone, scoured by a series of super-storms that wiped entire cities off the map. The West Coast has broken away in a sort of Californian Brexit, and the government of what remains of the country has simply given up, turning things over to the ominous Solfind Corporation. Solfind gained national and economic prominence with its perfection of intelligent robots, or artificial humans, which were used as rescue workers in the wake of the East Coast disaster but which have by the time the narrative begins been rebranded as “new people.” Solfind is busy integrating all these “new people” into society, in cities designated as “islands,” or economic development zones.
Satifka’s story takes place in Wheeling, West Virginia, just beyond the Pittsburgh economic development zone. Outside of the islands, people aren’t starving or descending into savagery so much as trying to make ends meet in lives descending into ennui and despair. That life in Wheeling isn’t the horrifying dystopia of The Walking Dead (2003-2019) or The Road (2006) makes it no less frightening. Rather, Satifka paints a picture of what life could easily become (has already become for many?) once the arc of progress begins to bend away from that possibility of a better life which motivates so much of society’s economic laboring. This sense of despair is the constant background of the story, as the faceless Solfind Corporation eliminates the last jobs remaining in Wheeling and Satifka’s characters find themselves pushed to the margins, where there is nothing left but to entertain oneself and stop caring.
Busted Synapses focuses on three characters: Jess, Dave, and Alice, each looking for escape. Jess is a college graduate who completed her degree just before things fell apart and is living with the realization that her determination to stay in school now simply means she has a degree that disqualifies her from the few remaining jobs—and debt that makes it impossible to afford living in an island. She’s surviving in a go-nowhere job at a call center where the phone never rings and the main benefit is the free lunch in the cafeteria. By the story’s end, the call center has been slowly reduced down to no staff at all. Satifka uses Jess’s character and terse, present tense prose to capture the growing panic of needing to escape from a small town with no options:
There were certain pockets of the world Solfind hadn’t touched, and anyone who could pony up around twenty thousand skins could buy themselves a few more years away from conglomerates. She’d considered it when her lease in the Pittsburgh Development Zone had run out, but where would she get the money?
They’ll get everyone in the end anyway, she thinks. There’s no place on earth where Solfind can’t reach, given time.
The light in the kitchen has turned grey. It’s almost sunset. Jess washes and dries the dishes slowly. Her arms feel dead and heavy. (p. 72)
Jess’s mom has already chosen escape, glued to her “feeds”—a sort of virtual social media stream, while her younger sister slips into drugs. The fact that none of this—least of all Jess’s job being replaced by artificial intelligence—seems like science fiction is what makes Satifka’s writing so timely and unsettling.
Dale, who might be Jess’s boyfriend if there was any sort of life in Wheeling on which to build a relationship and plan for a future, is in a similar situation. The BurgerMat where he works has just received permission to fully automate, putting him out of a job and his cheap apartment at risk. His sideline of organizing a team of players to participate in drug-induced virtual reality games for the entertainment of island viewers has also fallen apart, as his team’s latest game ended with one of the players taken to a local health clinic (hospitals are a thing of the past) because of an unexplained accident. Even the virtual reality world Satifka paints lacks any gloss: the players take drugs to heighten the immersive reality of their VR sets, then put on old football helmets, lie down on yoga mats, and insert bite plates in their mouths so they don’t bite off their tongues during the invariable seizures.
In the character of Alice, an artificial human who shows up in Wheeler and gets a job at Jess’s call center, Satifka shows that not even AI is immune from this brave new world of absolute exploitation. For Jess, clinging to her tenuous employment at the call center, Alice’s hiring is the last straw. Though Dale seems ready to befriend Alice (and Jess doubts the purity of his motives), for Jess, Alice’s presence means the artificial humans will now displace citizens outside of the islands as well.
Things take a turn, however, when Alice reveals to Jess that she’s come to Wheeling on the run from Solfind. Alice is beginning to have memories that she shouldn’t be experiencing. In particular, she’s starting to remember rescuing people on the East Coast and realizing what really happened there. Solfind, Alice claims, was responsible for it all: using weather satellites to orchestrate the system of storms, and planting bombs to increase the damage. Artificial humans like Alice normally have their memories wiped weekly, but Alice’s emerging memories provided her with the doubt and motivation to escape, hiding out in Wheeling as she considers what to do next.
Despite leaving open some pretty big questions (why would Alice need to get a job at all, which seems a poor way of staying in hiding? Why does she reveal this to Jess? Why not settle farther from Pittsburg if she’s really on the run?), Satifka has done a good job setting the stage for what could be a cyberpunk thriller—one in which Jess, Dale, and Alice band together to discover the truth and take down Solfind in the process. Except, at a mere ninety-five pages, this isn’t where Busted Synapses is going. Rather, Busted Synapses feels more like a prologue to a longer work. The writing is clear, concise, and solid, and the characters are almost frustratingly genuine. They seem so true to life, in fact, that once they learn of Alice’s claims their responses stall the narrative: each, including Alice, realize the futility of doing anything about it at all.
There are also some odd events that never get cleared up and leave a sense of unsettledness over the narrative. First there’s the question of what happened to Maria, a minor character and the gaming friend of Dale’s who was mysteriously injured. Later, Dale and a new group of gamers attempt to link up virtually—not with the gaming system but rather with Alice’s intelligence, going into her memories for proof that Solfind was responsible for the destruction of the East Coast. They find the evidence they are looking for (though it’s unclear how they’ll use it in any meaningful way), but they also see an echo or afterimage of Maria from the previous game, trapped somehow in Alice’s interior world. This link is never explained (why should Alice be connected with the online gaming world—but then again, why not?), and things get stranger as Dale and company eventually find an entire society of virtual people living inside Alice, trapped in virtual limbo. This puzzle strains the narrative itself as the novella ends with Dale and the others seemingly still trapped inside Alice, and yet a real Dale having a final interaction with Jess. We’re left to assume Alice’s artificial mind provides some kind of bridge into a virtual world that traps some aspect of consciousness even when the players wake up and go back into the real world; but the significance of this is never developed or explained.
The technological and economic dystopia of Satifka’s work, even the twist in which Alice’s character represents the idea that AI itself could be victimized in a corporate future, seems like what Blade Runner (1982) might have looked like if told from the countryside. In this work, then, a voice like Satifka’s seems less about breaking wholly new ground than it does about taking up for today the sorts of warnings Dick’s writing sounded in the '60s and '70s. If science fiction should be constantly reimagining and reinterpreting our futures in light of the situation on the ground, refreshing those imagined futures to see how closely they map on to where we actually are now, then we need writers like Satifka to continue to call out the dangers of our economic and technological trajectories—and Busted Synapses is a slender but powerful example of this.