When I was a teenager, I fought tooth and nail with my parents to go to rock concerts. I couldn’t live without the powerful rush of live music, the electric energy of a pit full of moshing punks screaming their lungs out. I’m not a spiritual person, but I consider a concert venue to be my church; being crushed by the crowd and singing myself hoarse are my sacraments. There is a special kind of community in experiencing music from within that throng, a raucous and rambunctious joy: singing together, moving together, enthralled by a band we love. It’s an incredible experience, and Nebula Award-winner Sarah Pinsker’s debut novel A Song For A New Day absolutely nails the feeling.
This is a book of quiet apocalypses and loud rock music. It takes place in a frightened, fragile near-future America in which mass shootings, terror attacks, and disease have made large gatherings illegal. The world changes overnight: no more live sporting events, no more concerts, no more malls, nor schools, nor mass transit. The government sweeps in and puts an end to all of it. (Only for our safety, of course.) Technology steps in, creating a device called a “hoodie” that lets a person experience life via safe and sanitized VR. Now you can attend all the games and concerts you want, without ever leaving your home. It’s so much better than spending a show crammed up against a smelly metalhead, right? So much better than being gunned down by a vigilante with a manifesto to promote.
Not according to Luce Cannon. She’s a one hit wonder who holds the dubious honor of having played at one of the last concerts before they were made illegal. Her story begins in the past, in a world reeling from the aftershocks of a string of terror attacks and in the throes of a deadly pox. Luce (who previously appeared in the Nebula-winning novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” available in the author’s collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea) tries to keep playing shows but is stymied by new rules and a cowed populace. In frustration, she sinks some of that rock star money into a few row homes, and beneath them carves out a secret underground venue, where she endeavors to keep the dream of live music alive. She’s a dystopian future’s answer to Joan Jett, a fierce woman guitarist who refuses to play by any rules but her own.
But then Rosemary walks into her life and ruins everything.
Rosemary is young, ambitious, and in over her head. She quits a steady VR job at a huge corporate conglomerate to become a talent scout for a company called StageHoloLive, which capitalized on the restrictive new laws to become the be-all end-all in musical entertainment in this brave new world. She leaves her one stoplight town to seek new bands to bring into SHL’s clutches. A tipoff leads her to Luce’s front door, and what results is a tumultuous tour dramatic enough for an episode of Behind The Music.
Awkward Rosemary, afraid to be in the same room as so many other people, manages to stumble into Luce’s good graces and find a place for herself within the live music scene. She discovers the undeniable magic of in-person performances; VR can’t replicate the feeling of a bass rattling your bones or drums synching with your heartbeat. For Rosemary, it’s like the first hit of a new drug, heady, and wonderful, and oh so crave-able. Luce takes her under her wing, helping her navigate the world of illicit performances, illegal venues, and the bands who thrive within them.
Naively, Rosemary excitedly reports back to her overlords, only for SHL to rush in, determined to eliminate potential competition for its massive virtual entertainment empire. Thus begins a journey for both Luce and Rosemary, who work together to right wrongs both large and small, and find a way to make a sterile, scared world into something more vibrant.
As a die-hard concert-goer, I can say with some authority that Pinsker knows he stuff. She has clearly spent her time in the pit, and writes beautifully about the life-changing power of a good guitar lick. She revels in the details—the mundane realities of being a small-time touring musician, and how those few moments on stage can make it all worth it. But the SFnal content isn’t mere background noise—Pinsker also writes a deeply compelling, all too plausible dystopia. This is a novel both sobering and joyful, reveling in the excitement of breaking rules and spitting in the eye of a government trying to force you to conform.
The characters feel incredibly genuine, and will seem especially so to anyone who has spent time playing music or attending shows. The author describes the energy of crowds so viscerally it feels like you’re standing in one. Characters both major and minor are given life and purpose, and none come off as caricatures or cartoons. Both Luce and Rosemary are involved in same-sex relationships, and they are captured in a way that feels both organic and ordinary; Pinsker weaves the women’s sexuality into the larger fabric of their lives rather than making it their defining trait. They are people, multi-faceted and complicated, and the dialogue between them is snappy and sharp, with a lyrical flow befitting so musical a book.
The novel ends on a slightly discordant note—it is an ode to resistance more than an anthem of rebellion. But it keeps the hope alive, and that’s maybe enough for now—at least until Pinsker returns to this darkened stage for an encore performance. I’d love to see the aftermath of what Luce and Rosemary have wrought, and maybe to watch the dystopia come tumbling down around them. I feel like I’ve been left hanging off the barrier, screaming for one more song. So it goes: eventually the lights always come up, the sound of music ringing in your ears.