SFWA Nebula Awards 2020 : A Song For A New Day by Sarah Pinsker

"Fear is a virus. Music is a virus and a vaccine and a cure." Luce Cannon                           

It's a new day! The world is slowly returning to normal. But the 'new normal' is a bit weird...

Some of you may have had enough of reading plague literature, but this is a gem. When Nebula nominee Sarah Pinsker wrote 'A Song For a New Day' last year - who could have known how prophetic it would be?

Pinsker has been a Nebula nominee many times and won in 2015 for her novelette, “Our Lady of the Open Road,” published in Asimov’s  6/15. This is her first novel. Terror attacks and a deadly virus have the U.S. under siege. Public gatherings have been cancelled. For musician Luce Cannon, this is a disaster. Sound familiar?

A Song for A New Day

This book will blow your mind. Written in 2019, its as if Pinsker dreamed a version of the future, a-la Xanadu. The story follows two women, who are also non-binary.

Luce Cannon (I love this name) is a singer used to working on her own, but actually misses her reprobate, pink-paint-stealing, hotel-room-wrecking touring band when the country is sent into lock down. You got it, lock down!

'That was the news we woke up to that morning...ominous requests from the government to get home, and stay home. "The tour is over," Margo at the label repeated over the phone. "All the venues are dark. Go home." ' (p.62)

At first this is due to widespread terrorist bombings, just as Luce has finally made it to the Big Time: a gorgeous old theatre that seats two thousand people. Determined that the show must go on, Luce plays to fifty stalwart fans who showed up anyway. Turns out this was the last live show to be played before lock down (I have fond memories of TOOL in Auckland. my last live show before lock down.)

"Making music in the darkness, then music against the darkness. The decision to play for the people who chose to go out instead of hiding in their homes. They'd have years and years for that. All that came later." (p.55)

When the population begins to break out in spots, accompanied by flu-like symptoms, lock down has become a permanent situation in Pinsker's novel. Gatherings of more than thirty people have been ruled illegal...

'Technology-enabled isolation' (a phrase coined by Ken Liu) sparks creative solutions. Rosemary is an online shopping operator who has grown up in the virtual world, protected by her parents who moved to a farm when people began to get sick. Randomly making an application, she lucks into a job with Stage Holo Live (SHL), despite her lack of experience in the real world, let alone the music industry. SHL is an online music platform that, ironically, gives Rosemary opportunities to experience the real world, as a talent scout. Virtual live performance is now a necessity for the entertainment industry. This is happening right now with the cancellation of live gigs all over the world. 

Many of us have just had the experience of working in isolation. Here at Christchurch City Libraries we delivered online content while we were at home - promoting eBooks, online tech help through Librarian in Your Lounge and reading stories aloud through Campfire for our patrons.I learned a lot during 'The Great Upload' : uploading to the web is a lot more difficult than downloading.

Pinkser comes up with some amazing and forward thinking innovations in response to the new way of being. I love her concept of Hoodspace : a hoodie with virtual reality; the next step up from VR goggles, and very validly Sci-Fi. In Hoodspace you can put a screen over any physical environment and change its appearance. People online wear avatars instead of jammies while working. Rosemary is so used to this that she finds it difficult to read people in real life.

'Walking from her bedroom/workspace into the kitchen was a walk back into reality. Enclosed in her Hoodie all day she sometimes came to believe there were no real people, just voices and messages and lines of code and avatars spread out across the world.' (p.20)

Pinsker's descriptions of the discomfort of being in close proximity to others is so close to our own experience in the aftermath of the Covid-19 scare it's uncanny. Rosemary:

'Way too many people. How did they all stand being in the same room? The heat of them, the air they displaced, somebody's cologne, somebody else's sweat...' (p.86).

Luce:

 '...there were only four people in line. They stood with oceans of space between them, so far from each other it could barely be a line at all. I couldn't stand the suspicion in everyone's eyes, like the other travelers were there to kill them or infect them or both.' (p.128)

In a step up from the perspex screens that have become our 'new normal' , isolation booths protect the population from infection in restaurants, bars, buses, hotels and for musicians recording and performing at SHL. Instead of a waitress serving your 'table bubble', each table has an electronic menu to order from. Performers playing in isolation, separated from each other, is a valid 'what if' that leaves no room for innovation - everything is timed to the last second and must synch up.SHL 'gigs' are streamed to audiences who enter a virtual venue as if experiencing the show live. Pretty neat.

Rosemary:

'"Is it weird playing in a box? Not being able to see your audience?" 

Aran:

"It took some getting used to. It closes down the conversation between the performer and audience, which is a weird sensation. Like leaving a message for someone that they're going to read in real time. Not seeing each other while we play is the harder part...we have to practice a lot more to get to a point where we can play something that sounds fresh or improvised"  (p.102)

Bailey:

"It doesn't feed you in the same way a live show does...If you're somebody who gets charged up by screaming fans or playing to the cutest person in the audience, you're not going to be fed." (p.110)

I love Pinsker's explanation of the music scene:

' "What's a scene?" Rosemary felt the colour rising in her face again. The more she considered her situation, the more she felt in over her head.

"Its hard to know what a scene is unless you're in it...A scene is the bands and audience and venues of an area, all combined into a stew. Musicians inspiring each other, working with each other. Sometimes there's a similar sound or feel that gets associated with the place." ' (p.107)

You can't keep a good musician down. As music will do, it has gone underground, because you really can't beat the thrill of a live show. Its the show that Luce craves and she puts her mind to finding a venue.

Luce:

'Playing music was the fire that kept the monsters at bay.' (p.52)

"I remember watching Patti Smith ride a bucking Stratocaster to a stand-still, then rip the strings off one by one until she had nothing left to play...I miss joy sweeping through a crowd. The good contagion." (p.113)

Dirty, hole-in-the wall venues still exist, though they are now illegal. Rosemary must get over her discomfort and negotiate her way through the real world to find talent.

Her criteria:

'...not to waste time on alcoholics or drug addicts...Nothing too political. Bring excitement, personality, charisma, the ability to connect with an audience, mainstream appeal...They wanted excitement but not edge or danger or anything offensive.' p.98

At Rosemary's first live experience, in a dirty old basement bar, she meets muso with a keyboard implant in his arm, meets Luce, and has a panic attack.

But the excitement of sharing live music with others wins her over and begins breaking down her fear of people:

'The guitars swallowed every inch of space in the room., filling the air, replacing the oxygen in her lungs...The kick drum rose up through her bones; the bass mimicked her pulse, or her pulse mimicked the bass.' (p182)

Will Luce bring down the congregation laws in favour of live gigs again, or will she choose to perform online? Will Rosemary join a band?

Want more books like this? Try the list: If You Liked : A Song For a New Day

The thought of losing live shared music experiences fills me with grief. Many of us have missed out on gigs cancelled due to Covid-19, and this New Zealand Music month our own music industry is suffering. During the pandemic, musicians have taken to online platforms to entertain the public and to keep performing, not necessarily for money. So keep buying their music, merch and subscribe to their feeds!

In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoy live coverage of one of my favourite New Zealand bands:

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