A Song for a New Day

by Sarah Pinsker

Cover image

Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: September 2019
ISBN: 1-9848-0259-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 372

Buy at Powell's Books

Luce Cannon was touring with a session band when the shutdown began. First came the hotel evacuation in the middle of the night due to bomb threats against every hotel in the state. Then came the stadium bombing just before they were ready to go on stage. Luce and most of the band performed anyway, with a volunteer crew and a shaken crowd. It was, people later decided, the last large stage show in the United States before the congregation laws shut down public gatherings. That was the end of Luce's expected career, and could have been the end of music, or at least public music. But Luce was stubborn and needed the music.

Rosemary grew up in the aftermath: living at home with her parents well away from other people, attending school virtually, and then moving seamlessly into a virtual job for Superwally, the corporation that ran essentially everything. A good fix for some last-minute technical problems with StageHoloLive's ticketing system got her an upgraded VR hoodie and complimentary tickets to the first virtual concert she'd ever attended. She found the experience astonishing, prompting her to browse StageHoloLive job openings and then apply for a technical job and, on a whim, an artist recruiter role. That's how Rosemary found herself, quite nerve-wrackingly, traveling out into the unsafe world to look for underground musicians who could become StageHoloLive acts.

A Song for a New Day was published in 2019 and had a moment of fame at the beginning of 2020, culminating in the Nebula Award for best novel, because it's about lockdowns, isolation, and the suppression of public performances. There's even a pandemic, although it's not a respiratory disease (it's some variety of smallpox or chicken pox) and is only a minor contributing factor to the lockdowns in this book. The primary impetus is random violence.

Unfortunately, the subsequent two years have not been kind to this novel. Reading it in 2022, with the experience of the past two years fresh in my mind, was a frustrating and exasperating experience because the world setting is completely unbelievable. This is not entirely Pinsker's fault; this book was published in 2019, was not intended to be about our pandemic, and therefore could not reasonably predict its consequences. Still, it required significant effort to extract the premise of the book from the contradictory evidence of current affairs and salvage the pieces of it I still enjoyed.

First, Pinsker's characters are the most astonishingly incurious and docile group of people I've seen in a recent political SF novel. This extends beyond the protagonists, where it could arguably be part of their characterization, to encompass the entire world (or at least the United States; the rest of the world does not appear in this book at all so far as I can recall). You may be wondering why someone bombs a stadium at the start of the book. If so, you are alone; this is not something anyone else sees any reason to be curious about. Why is random violence spiraling out of control? Is there some coordinated terrorist activity? Is there some social condition that has gotten markedly worse? Race riots? Climate crises? Wars? The only answer this book offers is a completely apathetic shrug. There is a hint at one point that the government may have theories that they're not communicating, but no one cares about that either.

That leads to the second bizarre gap: for a book that hinges on political action, formal political structures are weirdly absent. Near the end of the book, one random person says that they have been inspired to run for office, which so far as I can tell is the first mention of elections in the entire book. The "government" passes congregation laws shutting down public gatherings and there are no protests, no arguments, no debate, but also no suppression, no laws against the press or free speech, no attempt to stop that debate. There's no attempt to build consensus for or against the laws, and no noticeable political campaigning. That's because there's no need. So far as one can tell from this story, literally everyone just shrugs and feels sad and vaguely compliant. Police officers exist and enforce laws, but changing those laws or defying them in other than tiny covert ways simply never occurs to anyone. This makes the book read a bit like a fatuous libertarian parody of a docile populace, but this is so obviously not the author's intent that it wouldn't be satisfying to read even as that.

To be clear, this is not something that lasts only a few months in an emergency when everyone is still scared. This complete political docility and total incuriosity persists for enough years that Rosemary grows up within that mindset.

The triggering event was a stadium bombing followed by an escalating series of random shootings and bombings. (The pandemic in the book only happens after everything is locked down and, apart from adding to Rosemary's agoraphobia and making people inconsistently obsessed with surface cleanliness, plays little role in the novel.) I lived through 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing in the US, other countries have been through more protracted and personally dangerous periods of violence (the Troubles come to mind), and never in human history has any country reacted to a shock of violence (or, for that matter, disease) like the US does in this book. At points it felt like one of those SF novels where the author is telling an apparently normal story and all the characters turn out to be aliens based on spiders or bats.

I finally made sense of this by deciding that the author wasn't using sudden shocks like terrorism or pandemics as a model, even though that's what the book postulates. Instead, the model seems to be something implicitly tolerated and worked around: US school shootings, for instance, or the (incorrect but widespread) US belief in a rise of child kidnappings by strangers. The societal reaction here looks less like a public health or counter-terrorism response and more like suburban attitudes towards child-raising, where no child is ever left unattended for safety reasons but we routinely have school shootings no other country has at the same scale. We have been willing to radically (and ineffectually) alter the experience of childhood due to fears of external threat, and that's vaguely and superficially similar to the premise of this novel.

What I think Pinsker still misses (and which the pandemic has made glaringly obvious) is the immense momentum of normality and the inability of adults to accept limitations on their own activities for very long. Even with school shootings, kids go to school in person. We now know that parts of society essentially collapse if they don't, and political pressure becomes intolerable. But by using school shootings as the model, I managed to view Pinsker's setup as an unrealistic but still potentially interesting SF extrapolation: a thought experiment that ignores countervailing pressures in order to exaggerate one aspect of society to an extreme.

This is half of Pinsker's setup. The other half, which made less of a splash because it didn't have the same accident of timing, is the company Superwally: essentially "what if Amazon bought Walmart, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Disney, and Live Nation." This is a more typical SF extrapolation that left me with a few grumbles about realism, but that I'll accept as a plot device to talk about commercialization, monopolies, and surveillance capitalism. But here again, the complete absence of formal political structures in this book is not credible. Superwally achieves an all-pervasiveness that in other SF novels results in corporations taking over the role of national governments, but it still lobbies the government in much the same way and with about the same effectiveness as Amazon does in our world. I thought this directly undermined some parts of the end of the book. I simply did not believe that Superwally would be as benign and ineffectual as it is shown here.

Those are a lot of complaints. I found reading the first half of this book to be an utterly miserable experience and only continued reading out of pure stubbornness and completionism. But the combination of the above-mentioned perspective shift and Pinsker's character focus did partly salvage the book for me.

This is not a book about practical political change, even though it makes gestures in that direction. It's primarily a book about people, music, and personal connection, and Pinsker's portrayal of individual and community trust in all its complexity is the one thing the book gets right. Rosemary's character combines a sort of naive arrogance with self-justification in a way that I found very off-putting, but the pivot point of the book is the way in which Luce and her community extends trust to her anyway, as part of staying true to what they believe.

The problem that I think Pinsker was trying to write about is atomization, which leads to social fragmentation into small trust networks with vast gulfs between them. Luce and Rosemary are both characters who are willing to bridge those gulfs in their own ways. Pinsker does an excellent job describing the benefits, the hurt, the misunderstandings, the risk, and the awkward process of building those bridges between communities that fundamentally do not understand each other. There's something deep here about the nature of solidarity, and how you need both people like Luce and people like Rosemary to build strong and effective communities. I've kept thinking about that part.

It's also helpful for a community to have people who are curious about cause and effect, and who know how a bill becomes a law.

It's hard to sum up this book, other than to say that I understand why it won a Nebula but it has deep world-building flaws that have become far more obvious over the past two years. Pinsker tries hard to capture the feeling of live music for both the listener and the performer and partly succeeded even for me, which probably means others will enjoy that part of the book immensely. The portrayal of the difficult dynamics of personal trust was the best part of the book for me, but you may have to build scaffolding and bracing for your world-building disbelief in order to get there.

On the whole, I think A Song for a New Day is worth reading, but maybe not right now. If you do read it now, tell yourself at the start that this is absolutely not about the pandemic and that everything political in this book is a hugely simplified straw-man extrapolation, and hopefully you'll find the experience less frustrating than I found it.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-03-26

Last modified and spun 2022-04-03