Luce Cannon was a rising rock star, traveling with a new band and doing live shows all over the country, until a rash of deadly terrorist attacks, and the threat of more to come, caused the American government to criminalize large public gatherings.
Now, instead of live concerts, musicians and their fans meet virtually, with the fans wearing hoodies equipped with technology that allows them to safely experience the perception of being with others at a show. But Luce and like-minded artists never bought into this concept and aren’t willing to sell their souls to StageHoloLive, the big corporation that produces these events in “Hoodspace.”
Working out of her parents’ home, Rosemary Laws provides customer service for Superwally, an internet superstore that sells StageHoloLive (SHL) merchandise. Rosemary’s job isn’t bad — it’s secure and appealingly gamified — but she doesn’t make enough money to afford the expensive hoodies that give the best SHL user experiences. Then, one day after giving excellent Superwally service to SHL, she is rewarded with a new hoodie and a virtual ticket to a popular band’s concert.
After attending the live concert with hundreds of other fans, even though none of them are actually there in person, Rosemary is hooked. When Rosemary becomes a talent scout for SHL and is sent to recruit rogue musicians, she visits underground music clubs and meets serious but now unrenowned artists, including Luce Cannon. For the first time in her life, Rosemary’s ideas and ethics are challenged by someone who sees things a lot differently.
A Song for a New Day (2019) celebrates the thrilling experience of listening and dancing to live music that you love with thousands of strangers who feel the same way. You could translate this to any event where unrelated people gather to share an emotional experience together — a pep rally, a football game, a church service, a protest, a strike.
I never quite believed that the US government would outlaw large public gatherings — Americans just aren’t the type to give up this right, or at least to legislate it in such an extreme manner. Also, I thought it unlikely that Rosemary, after attending her first concert, would be hired as a talent scout. But these are minor quibbles. [May 2020 COVID Update: I wrote this review in November 2019. I’ve changed my mind about this. I believe it now after five concerts and one three-day rock festival I had tickets for were outlawed by the government in the last two months.]
Sarah Pinsker made me feel the magical sensation of being connected to other humans. Though she demonstrates some of the advantages of virtual reality, she warns us about the isolation that comes from moving more and more of our social experiences online. She shows us how it’s in their interest for internet companies to keep us home alone and happily plugged in. She asks us to consider online privacy issues and to think about how we can balance the need to feel safe with the need to feel free.
Musicians and fans who enjoy attending live concerts are most likely to appreciate A Song for a New Day. (And they should also read Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls.) Penguin Audio has produced the 12.5-hour long audiobook edition of A Song for a New Day. The narration by Dylan Moore and Nicol Zanzarella is very nice.
Kat gave an excellent overview of the plot of Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for A New Day, so my column is more of a reaction than a review. I had a different experience than Kat did. I read this book while I was under a Shelter in Place order (or lockdown, quarantine, or my favorite, the Great Sequestration, whatever you choose to call it). I don’t have to imagine the anti-congregation ordinances that are the primary plot obstacle in the book; I can observe them — from inside my house.
As Kat points out, there are two storylines in A Song for a New Day; that of Luce, a musician who is on the cusp of hitting it big with her hit “Blood and Diamonds,” and, a few years later, Rosemary Laws, who grew up in a society markedly different from Luce’s. A series of unexplained terrorist attacks closes down many if not all public venues, and Luce, although she doesn’t realize it, gives the final live rock concert in US history. On the heels of the devastating attacks comes a virulent disease called “the pox,” which spreads rapidly and is deadly to many. The confluence of these two things drives people inside and forces the government into drastic action, severely limiting public congregations of any kind. Online marketing forces, like Superwally, the megastore, and StageHoloLive (SHL), see this new way of living as a golden opportunity. StageHoloLive uses augmented and virtual reality to create a pale version of a live concert. If it doesn’t control the entire commercial industry yet, it’s well on its way to doing so.
But live performances still exist, even flourish, in underground clubs that function like speakeasies, with secret codes and passwords. Luce is at the forefront of the live music scene in Baltimore until events force her out and she goes on the road.
It was the road scenes, and the beautifully depicted emotion and connection of a live performance, that grabbed me and held me all the way through this story. Music has definitely changed in this story — there are performers who have used nano-technology to implant musical instruments in their bodies – but much of the music we see and hear is old; it’s rock, it’s blues, it’s folk, it’s bluegrass. Pinsker perfectly depicts the sense of a live performance, and I’d so go far as to say any kind of live performance. I’ve felt that almost electric rush of connection at stage plays and dance recitals, not just music concerts. There is a feedback loop between the audience and the performers. It’s been written about many times; Pinsker uses it here to accomplish a few things, and one is to offer a critique of the commodification of music.
A Song For a New Day made it onto my radar when writer Nancy Jane Moore, speaking from the audience, mentioned it at this year’s FOGCon, offering it as an example of hopepunk. A small, DIY community does its best to stand up to a corporation, and prevails by using the values and tools of the community. FOGCon was the last “live” event I went to this year. In retrospect, several of us have said it probably would have been more prudent to cancel it, but none of us regretted being there. I’m an introvert, and still, the experience of being in rooms with like-minded people energized and inspired me. In A Song For a New Day, that opportunity is gone unless you are willing to break the law… or unless those laws change.
Rosemary is well-written. Throughout the book, she experiences anxiety and fear in social settings; a full-blown panic attack at her first truly live conference, but anxiety even on public transport, which is much more isolating than current mass transit. Rosemary scans a group a people and wonders if one of them is violent, or has a weapon; she also fears standing too close to someone in case they sneeze, hesitates when a server in a diner carries over her bowl of chili, because what if the server’s infected? This happens in spite of the fact that the disease seems to be contained at this point of the story. If I’d read those sections in 2019, I might have found Rosemary’s anxiety well-written but slightly implausible. Now, all I have to do is skim NextDoor to find people ranting at the bicyclists, who are 20 feet away from them, because they aren’t wearing face coverings. Pinsker nailed it.
Plotwise, the terrorism and the pox vanish from the story early and are never explained. This isn’t the kind of book that intends to dwell on those more thrillerish aspects; Pinsker needed a premise that would justify these drastic changes, and she found them. Still, the convergence of two dramatic and horrifying things leaves a loose end. I wish she would have addressed it, even if it was only one line about a vaccine, or something. It nagged at me, and that, plus the relative ease with which Rosemary works out her clever scheme at the end of the book, impinged on my immersion in this book just enough to shift it from a 5-star rating to a 4.5 star rating. That said, when I got to the end, I reread the final two paragraphs twice, just to drink them in. I’ll leave you with part of the ending (no spoilers).
Luce had once told Rosemary how you grabbed on to a single note, and, if it sounded good, you played it until you were ready to pick a new one. And the thing she hadn’t said, but Rosemary had learned from her, later: that in any given moment, there’s no such thing as a wrong note.
A Song for a New Day is thoughtful, emotionally honest and ultimately hopeful. It gave me hope. As Luce says, late in the book, “See you on the road.”