The music hit Rosemary like a wave, knocking her breath from her. Louder than anything she had ever heard, filling every corner of her. One chord, and she was full. Don't stop, Rosemary thought. Don't ever stop.
A science fiction novel written by Sarah Pinsker and published in 2019.
Let's get this out of the way first. From our current vantage point in the early spring of 2020, this is a shockingly prophetic book. It's set at some point in our near-future, when a combination of terrorist attacks and deadly plague epidemic convinces the government to ban all mass gatherings. Sporting events are no more. All schools are taught online. Shopping malls, conventions, parades, amusement parks, festivals, movie theaters, and music concerts dry up and blow away.
It is, I will tell you, deeply weird to be reading along in a book of science fiction, published about six months ago, and find incidents that closely mirror the evening news.
So what's our plot about? We follow two main characters. There's Luce Cannon, rock star on the rise -- at least until concerts get banned nationwide. She has a little extra fame because she played the very last major concert before large gatherings got shut down. So years afterwards, still jonesing for the thrill of playing live music for an audience, she runs secret and illegal concerts out of her soundproofed home in Baltimore. And there's Rosemary Laws, a younger woman who has spent most of her life sheltered and protected in the rural Midwest. She's attended online schools, has few real-world friends, lives with her technophobic parents, and works as online technical support for the Superwally retail giant.
Rosemary gets a new job working for a company called StageHoloLive -- they specialize in recording holographic music concerts for live or recorded replay on Hoodies, which are basically wearable virtual reality interfaces. Put the hood up, and you can go online, watch a concert or movie, and order your groceries (with convenient drone delivery). Expecting to go into tech support, she instead finds herself in what's now called A&R -- Artists and Repertoire -- essentially finding new performers in whatever secret venues they may be playing, recruiting them, and getting them signed on as StageHolo artists, ready to gain worldwide fame and make the company a lot of money.
Rosemary has no idea how to find any secret concert venues, but gets a hint from a StageHolo artist that she should check out a particular club in Baltimore. So even though she's been told her whole life that cities and large gatherings are full of disease and probably terrorists, Rosemary gathers up all her courage and travels to the big city. Once she finds Luce's secret music club -- and once she overcomes her fears of human contact -- she starts making friends, including Luce and a bunch more people in interesting and very talented bands.
But StageHoloLive has some dark secrets that cause serious repercussions when exposed. Can Rosemary continue working for them? Can Luce find a way to keep making music? And is there a way for both of them to break the hold fear has over the country?
This was a really fun book -- and not just because it was so weirdly prescient. I'd actually stopped reading somewhere around the middle -- not because I wasn't enjoying it, but because I had a different book I was reading that had hooked me into focusing on it. But once the urgency about the Coronavirus outbreak started making the news, once all the sports venues started closing, all the conventions cancelled, all the schools started shutting down, and everyone was told to distance themselves socially from friends, coworkers, and even family members -- well, the bizarre accidental topicality of the book's background brought me back and kept me glued to the page. And honestly, the topicality means it deserves a lot more readers. Hint, hint, guys.
I loved the characterization -- Luce and Rosemary are the most obvious examples, but there are great character bits everywhere, from the members of Luce's various bands to Rosemary's parents to the corporate middle managers at SHL to the music fans willing to risk jail for the sake of new music. LGBT representation is everywhere -- both Luce and Rosemary identify as queer, and they're far from the only ones. And the fact that being gay is rarely remarked upon and never condemned is one of the few ways this future society is better than our current one.
The worldbuilding is also great. There's a lot of stuff we're shown without having everything specifically laid out in detail. Drones are everywhere, both for deliveries and for people wanting to see the world without leaving the house. Hoodies are rarely worn by older people but almost universal for the young -- except for young people who've decided they can live a better life without the corporate surveillance and gatekeeping the Hoodies bring. Certain areas are completely closed to any vehicles but self-driving cars, and rural cops will stop any car with license plates from urban states out of simple racist paranoia. The characters barely remark upon these things because it's part of the landscape of their lives, but it still manages to paint us a very clear vision of this corporate dystopia.
I was also impressed with how well the author incorporated many current issues into the story without absolutely overpowering the plot. The book addresses the question of whether concerns over public safety should trump personal freedom. It jabs a hard, angry finger at the entire concept of health care inequities. It ponders the fact that technology and social media have just as much power to oppress us as it has to liberate us.
And the story reserves its greatest venom for our system of predatory capitalism -- not through diatribes and jeremiads, but just by recounting how outrageously stupid and greedy our corporate overlords can get. Is StageHoloLive over-the-top in its stupidity and evil? Maybe a little -- but do you know how many restaurants make their employees come to work sick? If fiction's villains are unrealistically vile, the real world has more than enough ridiculous evil, too.
But though it describes a short-sighted dystopia, this is still a hopeful book. Throughout the book, the power of music to bring people together, to heal and uplift, to create pure joy is celebrated. Musicians and audiences are always depicted as being willing to defy the law for the sake of live music, and more than one music fan works to turn their home or their business or even just a barn out in a back lot into a performance venue, even at the risk of losing their property to the cops. And in the end, music has the power to change lives and the system. Music -- and hope -- have great power.
My friends, this book is highly recommended and highly relevant, not just because it manages to predict our current situation, but because it also offers a little hope for a way out. Musicians, artists, creatives of all sorts, you will love this book more than you can believe. Go pick it up.
"The world isn't over yet. We don't need to keep all the old things, but we need something new. Borrow a guitar and learn how to use it. If that isn't your thing, figure out what is. Invent your own genre. Carve your initials into something. Brand them, paint them, shoot them, transpose them, change them entirely and sculpt yourself out of a new medium. Instrument and tool are synonyms: we can still construct ways to belong. Our song is a work in progress."