Sarah Pinsker’s “Song for a New Day”: outstanding dystopian rock-and-roll novel of rebellion and redemption

Since her stories started appearing in 2013, Sarah Pinsker (previously) has been a writer to watch, winning prestigious awards from the Nebula to the Sturgeon; now, in her debut novel, A Song For a New Day, Pinsker shows that she can write long-form work that’s every bit as compelling, wrenching, sweet and angry as the stories that launched her career.

Luce Cannon is a rising music star whose unlikely hit single has garnered her a label deal, a touring band, and a succession of better and better gigs as she crisscrosses America in her band’s van. It’s a long way from busking in New York City, and even longer from orthodox Jewish family she left behind in Brooklyn when she realized, painfully, that neither her queerness nor her affinity for music could ever find a home among the closed-minded religious community she hailed from.

But Luce’s career — and the careers of every other live entertainer — is cut short when a wave of terrorist violence sweeps America, mass shootings and bombings that progress relentlessly from isolated events to threats that shut down whole cities, then whole states. Before America can come to grips with the chaos that has everyone cowering in their homes, the country is swept by a lethal pox pandemic that kills many and scars all.

The America that emerges from the chaos is profoundly transformed. Unconstitutional, authoritarian anti-congregation and low-density laws — passed under color of state of emergency — are combined with widespread adoption of VR and drone delivery to reverse America’s urbanization, turning the country into a nation of isolated shut-ins who live almost entirely virtual lives, from work to education to romance to entertainment.

Rosemary is a child of that America. When we meet her, she is working from her bedroom in a cheap VR hood as a troubleshooter for Superwally, a thinly veiled Walmart analog that has come to monopolize all of America’s ecommerce and logistics. When Rosemary does a solid favor for a virtual concert company that relies on Superwally for cloud services, ticket sales, and other back-end functions, she is rewarded with a free pass to attend a major rock show, complete with a new VR rig (a “hoodie”) that is droned in just in time for her to attend the show from the windmill farm that her paranoid, traumatized parents retreated to during the crisis.

The show is transformative for Rosemary, making her realize what she’s missed in living her isolated, shut-in life. The music burns in her, and sends her looking for a chance to get involved, which is how she ends up landing a prized — but also transgressive — job as a talent scout for the world’s largest, most monopolistic virtual concert company, a job that allows her to travel America, looking for hidden, illegal music venues where people who burn with music still gather for the primal experience of making and hearing music in close company with other humans.

Luce, meanwhile, is running one of these underground venues, nursing a tiny music scene in a hidden basement in Baltimore, where misfits and relics and weirdos somehow find themselves performing and hearing new sounds, many of which have no place in the sanitized, corporatized world of VR concerts.

The setup allows Luce and Rosemary’s path to cross, and sets the stage for a road-trip novel that paints a picture of an authoritarian America where fear and power come together with the most advanced technologies to create a nation of voluntary prisoners, where a guaranteed minimum income and universal access to digital education resources are not enough to dismantle inequality and corrupt autocratic rule.

It also sets the stage for a novel of rock-and-roll fuelled rebellion, as vivid and necessary as music itself, with the verisimilitude of real life experience (Pinsker herself is a long-time indie rocker). The combination of technothriller, rock-and-roll novel, and rebellion in a dystopian world make for a riveting, sweet, funny, angry, gorgeous read.

A Song For a New Day [Sarah Pinsker/Berkley]