Reading Through the Awards: A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

July 16, 2020

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day, recent winner of the Nebula Award, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “After a global pandemic makes public gatherings illegal and concerts impossible, except for those willing to break the law for the love of music—and for one chance at human connection.”

A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker came out last year in September 2019, debuting as a science-fiction novel. The narrative takes place in a world where acts of terrorism and ongoing pandemics prevent huge public gatherings from occurring. The narrative takes turns with each chapter to shift the focus to a different character. Our protagonists are Luce & Rosemary. Luce is an aspiring musician who remembers how the world used to be before the current status quo while Rosemary is a corporate slave in a society she can’t recognize as dystopian by virtue of growing up on it.

However, reading it in 2020, I could not help but engage with the narrative with an entirely different set of political lenses. Through no fault of its own, it feels unrecognizable as a science-fiction novel. That’s not a statement towards the quality of the author’s, how effective the narrative functions, nor any indication of any personal disinterest in the work. Essentially, the story feels more grounded than ever before.

The “science-fiction” premise is only used as a means of introducing the conflict with our characters, Luce & Rosemary, in how they struggle to grow in a society that prohibits us from being human. However, one can’t help but feel one might get the wrong idea from this novel and how it relates to contemporary politics; A Song for a New Day isn’t a beacon call to end the current quarantine. If anything, it is a narrative that wishes to remind us despite extenuating circumstances that may be out of our control, there is still hope especially with how Luce & Rosemary’s storyline intertwines in a tale of when playing a concert is an act of good willed anarchy.

Kevin Gardea

For a novel set in a post-pandemic world—and published just months before the world devolved to its current state—it’s hard to avoid comparisons between A Song for a New Day and our new normal, especially as we’ve similarly moved much of our lives online. And while the struggle between the real and virtual world is a common theme in dystopian and science fiction, it presents unique complications for those who make music and those who sell it.

For Luce Cannon, the magic in performing live comes from the freedom to experiment with her art and connect with strangers. It’s something she’ll chase, even if large gatherings are now illegal. There’s no appeal in selling out to a large conglomerate who’ll make her stream her one hit over and over. For Rosemary Laws, she’s been assured all musicians are just waiting for their big break on StageHolo. If tweaking their act gets them onto a platform watched by millions, why not?

The contrast in their ideologies play out even in their narrative styles. With first person narration, Luce has whole ownership of her words. Rosemary’s chapters are told in close third, as if someone is re-interpreting her thoughts and actions to the reader. And yet, in some key conversations, Rosemary is able to shed this interloper completely. There are no dialogue tags or action descriptions, creating the sense of an unbroken duet that builds, mirroring Rosemary as she reassesses her worldview and convinces Luce to team up for a pitch-perfect crescendo of what rock-and-roll and dystopia love best: rebellion.

June Sham

It is safe to say, like me, you are quarantined, and find yourself adjusting to this new way of life. Perhaps you had plans to travel, or attend a wedding, or even go to a concert. Now the new normal is staying inside, avoiding large gatherings, wearing a mask, and utilizing the internet as a form of communication and escape. In Sarah Pinsker’s new book, A Song for a New Day, she imagines a world not too far from this reality. Individuals have become isolated due to frequent acts of terror and a fatal flu that quickly becomes a deadly pandemic.

Set on different timelines with two different protagonists, the reader meets Luce and Rosemary. Luce is our conduit into the world of Before. She was a musician on the rise, with a hit single, and a tour lined up. Unknowingly, she makes history by performing the last concert before the world changed. The reader follows Luce into the After, and how she must pivot her life while trying to maintain her love for music. Rosemary was born into the world of the After and lives on a farm with her parents. She is only able to glean fragments of the past from conversations with her parents. Isolation booths, online avatars, droning essentials, and keeping her distance from others is as normal as breathing. She works out of an advanced wearable computer-controlled AR device called a Hood, as a customer service specialist. Destined to make a change, she applies for a job that will take her far away from home on a crash course to breaking out of her comfort zone.

Music is a universal language, and Pinsker exploits this truth within her novel. Music is the bridge that connects the world from the Before to the world of the After. Music itself has the power to connect individuals from all over, and A Song for a New Day shows the risks of this. With large gatherings now illegal due to the virus, some gather in secrecy to listen to music while trying to avoid arrest—some profit off of music, seeking to monetize a new way to experience live music legally. Told from a first-person point of view, the reader can feel and live through every note that Luce plays, her energy being fed directly from the crowd. To her, the power of performance is a leeway point to the world she once knew. Rosemary’s narrative takes the reader on a different path. Utilizing third-person POV, we follow her as she builds her love for music from the ground up, discovering in more ways than one why music is such an essential part of living. A Song for a New Day is a character-driven novel in which the reader experiences the changes that Luce and Rosemary must undergo. Pinsker shows that even in a world shaped by quarantine, love, humanity, exploration, and the power of music, can still exist.

Adam Schwartz

An unsettlingly timely novel, Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day follows the lives of two women who are both drawn to music. Luce was an up-and-coming rockstar whose dreams of a career were dashed when the world around her was thrown into disarray—terrorist attacks and a deadly virus swept the world, forcing the government to shut down all large gatherings, including concerts. She plays her music for crowds illegally but struggles to get others to connect to her music, she doesn’t think they really listen to what she’s trying to say. The other woman, Rosemary, was raised in the After: her world is one where nearly all interactions take place in virtual spaces where no physical contact is needed. On the occasion face-to-face interaction is required, people do not touch in fear of getting sick. Yet, it is Rosemary who finds a new job that takes her into Luce’s world of illegal concerts. She’s hired to find promising musicians and offer them a chance to practice their music legally: from the safety of holographic concerts where they will never truly interact with the people they’re playing for. And then this story does exactly what you think it’s going to do with a premise like this.

The story takes its time to trip its way over themes and ideas that have been rehashed before, without adding anything new to the conversation. The novel wants to argue that technology can only create the illusion of human connection and is not a true replacement. It argues this through music. To this novel, to these characters, music is something that must be experienced to be truly understood and appreciated. That’s why, when offered the chance to have her music career back in the form of a holographic performance, Luce initially turns it down. To her, music cannot truly connect with another person if it’s not performed live. This entire idea ends up being the center around Rosemary’s character arc. At first, she thinks she can live her life with the virtual disconnection because it’s all she’s ever known. Then, by going to these illegal live shows, she begins to believe that there’s no way the virtual concerts can be a substitute. Those listening hear something in the music. They feel something in the music. Supposedly that something is human connection. However, for a book about music and the way it’s supposed to connect people, the writing never really lets the music exist beyond vague descriptions. Whatever it is they feel or hear goes undefined. Yes, there are mentions of somebody singing or a guitar being played. Yes, it is definitely stated that songs are performed, but there are very few descriptions of how the music is played or what it is about the song being sung that gives it the ability to connect. We’re only ever told that music affects those listening, but almost never how it manages to do that. This book hits you over the head with the argument that technology is no replacement for real life, that music is something that must be experienced in person to be understood, but it barely explores why that is. With only repetition and no exploration, with the music always so vague and undefined, the argument falls flat. The only thing that truly sets this novel apart from others is its timing.

A Song for a New Day was published last September—before COVID and everything else that has happened in 2020. It is jarring to read this, now, in our own After when we can’t have large gatherings and our interactions must be virtual in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones. It makes the novel feel less like speculation, but an eventuality. A Song for a New Day managed to stumble its way into relevance only because its world is one that we may well be about to live in. The novel is not really interested in exploring its plague-ravaged world and, because of that, the characters treat their day-to-day as normal. This novel, unintentionally, gives us a window into a not-so-unlikely near future. It’s enough to make you take a step back and wonder: is this really what we’re facing? How are we going to connect? And it’s enough to make you hope that maybe it will be something as simple as music that will keep us together, even if the novel itself cannot manage to connect its music in writing.

Rebecca Calloway

Curated by Brandon Williams


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