I adored this book and finished it in a single sitting. I was surprised that it's a debut novel, though Sarah Pinsker also has a collection of her short stories in print. I'll need to seek that out.
What's hard is to identify what I liked the most.
I liked the setting, which is a near future America divided not by wealth or colour or politics but by fear. I've long felt that the US is driven by fear as much as money, a manifestation of right wing horror (it's out there and it's going to get me) rather than the left wing horror (it's in me and it's got me) of Europe. I see this every day in the real world but rarely in this sort of fiction.
Here, the author conjures up a few triggers to emphasise fear. In the early chapters, terrorists and gunmen seem to be everywhere. A bomb is detonated at a baseball game, killing over a thousand people, but others are exploded, found or just called about. The first chapter features a bomb threat called in for every hotel in Baltimore, leaving thousands in the streets waiting on an overworked police department to clear their buildings. Later, the pox, an infectious and contagious disease, takes down an unspecified but substantial number. All this prompts the government to implement a curfew and a ban on large congregations of people and the majority goes along with it because of fear. They just want to be safe.
With many retreating away from dangers real and perceived, hoodspace becomes a popular alternative for socialisation. It's kind of like the internet, but an internet that's highly customisable with overlays and avatars and heavily restricted to boot. Most people can only access the net through Superwally, who keep them from seeing content that isn't either their own or provided by partners like StageLiveHolo.
Pinsker isn't too interested in exploring the how of all this, because she's staying with the social results, but it's fascinating nonetheless. Remember when people thought AOL was the internet? Now take away the search bar. Jump forward in time to Apple or Microsoft having modes where you can't install a piece of software that isn't in the appropriate store. Add in an exclusivity deal with the hardware manufacturers behind Pinsker's hoodies and you have a serious walled garden, a dream for a large content provider.
I liked the characters, even though I have very little in common with either of the leads, both of whom are lesbians.
Luce Cannon is the stage name of a touring musician who's found success with a song called Blood and Diamonds. She plays live the evening of the baseball stadium bomb, when everyone is told to go home, and, years later, it's found that she was the last act to play live in front of an audience Before. This prompts an interview and a resurgence, with that song shifting up from gold to platinum, allowing her some financial freedom. Even though it's illegal, she continues to play live because it's simply who she is, and she runs an underground music venue in Baltimore called 2020, with rotating shows twice weekly.
When we first meet Rosemary, she's working for SuperWally in a helpdesk role based out of her bedroom. She was still young when things went down and her parents retreated to an isolated farm to keep themselves and her safe. She's grown up, like many, living virtually through Hoodspace. She likes music and is blown away by a Patent Medicine gig, even though she's experiencing it in Hoodspace, in a virtual crowd being entertained by projected holograms. The band is playing in a StageLiveHolo warehouse to no audience at all but are being simultaneously broadcast to many virtual locations. She promptly finds a job with SLH, becoming an artist recruiter, someone who travels around to find bands for SLH to sign.
Initially, we alternate chapters between Luce and Rosemary, gradually seeing that we're not following the same timeline. Years pass for Luce, who we meet Before and follow through all the troubles to the modern dystopia. Rosemary, on the other hand, doesn't even remember Before, and has been shaped by an isolated upbringing. She has a panic attack when she realises that she's in a crowd at 2020 and she's shocked to discover that there are people who eat, drink or just sit next to other people.
Of course, they meet, as part one gives way to part two, Rosemary travelling to Baltimore on a musician's suggestion that she'll find good bands at 2020. While I enjoyed the worldbuilding and character building of the first part, I was blown away by the second. As a musician and fan herself, as well as a writer, Pinsker understands the joy of discovery and it's everywhere here.
I absolutely revelled in how Rosemary finds whole worlds opening up to her, not just bands actually playing live in front of physical people, but whole mindsets that contradict everything she'd been brought up to believe. She's immersed in a world where creation is valued and shared. The contrasts here aren't merely live vs. virtual but also independent vs. mainstream, personal vs. commercial, free vs. safe and real vs. artificial.
If I loved part one and adored part two, I liked part three, in which we're led towards an ending that's also a beginning for both Luce and Rosemary. I think it's the right ending, but there's so much build here that any ending is going to be disappointing. Sure, there's a rise/fall/rise for both these characters and for the country they live in, but the real rise is what comes next, not only for the fictional world Pinsker has created but for us in the real one.
I've never wanted to jump immediately into a sequel more than this in my life but we're the sequel. Luce's manifesto doesn't just apply to the small towns in this dystopian America. It applies to us right here right now and we should be listening.
There's much more I want to talk about here, from twisted corporate business models that ring very true indeed to the technological trends that backed it all into a controlled corner, via the musical bodymod community. For a novel that's fundamentally social in nature and speaks mostly to artistic freedom, there's a lot of science fiction hiding in plain sight.
And, as a music critic, I want to know how fictional some of these fictional musicians are because they're magnetic in supporting roles. I want to hear Mary Hastings, the elderly black woman who works in the diner up the street but loops incredible solo instrumental music at 2020. I want to hear Laurian who plays Appalachian murder ballads on her banjo in the Asheville streets with a huge dog curled up at her feet. I even want to hear the zoukhop of Margritte, even if she's sold out to SLH.
Sadly, Pinsker lives in Maryland, so isn't likely to be on a panel anywhere I'm going to be at any time soon. ~~ Hal C F Astell