Completed 1/20/2021, Reviewed 1/21/2021
This was a prescient novel, published in 2019 and winner of the Nebula Award. It predicts a U.S. ravaged by a plague, domestic terrorists, and predatory mega-corporations, which pretty much occurred just one year later. It’s about the fight to get people to play and hear music live instead of virtually many years after a shelter in place edict has been instituted. The mega-corporations help keep the mandate in place so that they can control consumerism long after the plague and the terrorism has subsided. As a musician, I could really relate to the characters and their love of live performance and live listening, but found the fight against the shelter in place order to be a frightening read at a time when in real life, the pandemic is still escalating. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the book, finding it a fast-paced, exciting, easy read.
Luce Cannon is a musician who has just seen her song “Blood and Diamonds” become a hit. She’s on tour with her band just as a sports stadium has been bombed and a highly virulent, deadly, pox-like pandemic has exploded. The night that the shelter in place order goes out, she performs one last concert and a few of the hundreds of ticket holders actually show up. Several years after this event, she opens a secret club for people to come to hear live music again, defying the congregation laws. In alternating chapters, there’s a second character, Rosemary, a 24-year-old woman who lives with her parents on a farm many years after the pandemic event and works remotely for a mega-corporation, not unlike Amazon or Walmart. She gets the opportunity to go to a virtual concert which changes her life. She applies for a job with the music mega-corporation that puts on such concerts and gets hired as a new music recruiter. Her job is to find the secret venues and sign on these small acts to propel them into the virtual world of superstardom. This leads her to cross paths with Luce.
The characterization was terrific. Both Luce and Rosemary are queer women, but on different sides of the music industry. I thought both were fully realized and realistic. Luce is woke and Rosemary is naïve. There’s lots of dialogue which I also thought was very realistic. It is mostly through the dialogue that world-building takes place, the events leading up to the shelter in place and congregation laws and the state of the world fifteen years later. And it is through their dialogue that we experience Luce and Rosemary’s passion for music, albeit with conflicting goals.
The prose is sparse. It’s mostly found in the descriptions of the performances. Pinsker really captures the concert experience from both the performer’s and the audience’s points of view. Pinsker herself is a musician, which lends credibility to the emotions the characters have at the concerts. As a musician and a long-time concert-goer, I can vouch for the high you get from being on either side of the stage lights, although I also had tremendous performance anxiety while Luce has tremendous performance compulsion. Still I could relate to the rush you get from both performing and attending.
The near-future world Pinsker created is quite plausible, dominated by interactive hoodies with virtual reality overlays. Powerful phones are also still a thing in this world. Drones deliver everything and the economy runs on people’s fear. You can easily see it happening for real if corporations like Amazon and Walmart have their way. It’s sort of like a war-time economy, requiring wars to keep the giant corporations and defense industries alive. In this book, the mega-corporations have a vested interest in keeping everyone sheltering in place to continue reaping their profits.
I give this book four stars out of five. I was close to giving it five stars, but my own conflict between the book’s call for freedom versus the current, real-life call for safety kept me from totally giving into it. I think if we were on the other side of the pandemic, I would have let myself feel Luce’s fight against repression. I also think the book is a little simplistic in its message. But overall, the book worked for me. And having two queer women as main characters made for a wonderful change, especially after reading several old-school straight white male-dominated books.