Book review: A Song For a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Books Australia)

Prescience, thy name is Sarah Pinsker.

Released in 2019, Song For a New Day finds the USA, and possible the world though that is never made clear (and nor is it really necessary for the story told), dealing with the aftereffects of a pandemic, so virulent and so comprehensively destablising that the only way to deal with it is to order people to their homes permanently.

Forget month-long or even year-long lockdowns, which have tested the resilience and humanity of people during the current COVID pandemic, and disrupted the smooth functioning of society, this is a neverending lifestyle of domesticated everything.

While some people do leave their homes, and some cafes and shops are open (albeit with socially distancing enforced rigidly) and roads do have traffic, though much of it is automated, the vast majority of life, all life for all but a brave minority, takes place within the four walls of home and backyards if you have them.

Having experienced a lengthy lockdown this year here in Sydney, it was not too hard for this reviewer to picture a world in which staying at home is the only real option to you.

It sends shivers down your spine to think of such a thing, but for Rosemary, one of two key protagonists in the book whose story takes place in the “After” as the post-pandemic age is known – and yes, the here and now we know is called the “Before”; simply but evocatively effective naming – it is all she has ever known.

“‘Thank you for playing. I couldn’t sit at home alone tonight,’ one woman said.

‘I drove an hour to get here,’ said another, ‘I’m glad I did.’

More so than usual, they all wanted a piece of me [Luce], a moment. I tried to give the time they needed. One after another, they each gave their variation on that story, and then wandered out into the night.” (P. 54)

Only a small girl when the society turned in on itself and her parents moved to a small farming community to escape the urban blight of pandemic -it affected everyone everywhere but many people fled the cities for some sort of perceived heightened rural safety – Rosemary only knows interactions with other people, attending concerts and working in a virtual context.

She is employed by Superwally, an Amazon-like behemoth that delivers good to people via drone, the only safe way people are able to get what they need, a job she hates but which she needs in a society which has had to realign itself almost overnight, with concomitant loss of vocational options as all kinds of once common physical activities either stop completely or go online.

But then her life changes in amazing, eye-opening ways when she is given the opportunity to go on the road, something which excites and terrifies her in equal measure, and she discovers that perhaps the outside world, often used as a weapon of fear by corporations financially invested and profiting greatly from keeping people solely at home, may not be so frightening and could be capable of so much more than she has been led to believe.

As end of the world epiphanies go, this one is a doozy, and so human and richly-expressed and in a genre that’s been mined over and over again to the point of cliche, refreshingly original in its voice.

Sarah Pinsker (image courtesy official Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Twitter account)

As Rosemary is having her world progressively rocked in scary but ultimately liberating ways, we are also treated to the Before story of rising musician Luce Cannon, who is getting ever more airtime, bigger venues and has, for all intents and purposes, got the music world at her feet.

Then a series of mass shootings and bombings occur, driving people indoors, something which becomes permanent when the flu-like pandemic drives the final coffin into society as we know it, and Luce finds herself given the dubious honour of having performed the last-ever rock show in a world where large gatherings of any kind become unthinkable.

Alternating between the Before and the After with a beguiling storytelling alacrity and with a scintillating gift for robust, fully-formed characterisation and buoyant, meaningful dialogue, Song For a New Day is a richly told story of what happens when the world ends, then doesn’t, then has to grapple with what it should be now the once-apocalyptic threat is over.

Or, as Rosemary discovers as the once-threatening world starts to look far less so, its frightening visage more a result of corporate convenience and governmental control than any real, immediate danger, and it sets her wondering whether some things do need to change.

“Rosemary turned back to the main entrance, where an enormous inflated castle dwarfed the vestibule. It looked intact other than two dropping turrets. She had seen these in old movies, in school carnival scenes and birthday parties, but never in person. That was a different kind of childhood, a different kind of growing up, a Before to her After, full of real human bodies navigating the space between each other. One bounce, just to try it, and then she’d run.” (P. 317)

Full to please abundance with a thinking person’s view of the apocalypse and its dystopian-ish aftermath, Song For a New Day is a love song of sorts to music and creativity, an evocation of the wonder and purity of making something that doesn’t come with a monetised value.

Time and again, characters have to ask themselves what matters to them, and while you might think that will inevitably render the novel as a fairly black and white treatise on the ills or otherwise of capitalism, the reality is that Pinsker is too clever and ruminative a writer to simply throw a lot of obvious answers at a problem.

Rather, there is a pragmatic acceptance of how the world works melded with an aspiration that things can, and should be, far better than they are.

It’s that groundedness that works well with the stories of Luce and Rosemary, which intersect in ways that will enthrall you and keep you compulsively reading a story which says a lot of big and epic things in gloriously understated and all-too-human ways.

It may indeed be the end of the world as we and REM know it, but queer-flavoured Song For a New Day, in telling a brilliantly immersive story replete with introspective interludes, deaths of the old and the awakening of the new (and a current limbo fossilised somewhere in the middle) and a hopeful sense that even when certain machinations are underway and the status quo has long slunk into a smaller, inconsequential form, that maybe change is possible and that creativity and other human expressions might actually win out in the end.

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