Review: A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sat Mar 26 21:00:00 PDT 2022

A Song for a New Day
by Sarah Pinsker

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

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 populous, 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
at 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

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 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


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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