"Recommended by Katherine Mangu-Ward in Reason" was probably enough for me to grab this book out of the Portsmouth Public Library. It also won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
So it's not bad. I'll get to my problems later.
The book follows two female protagonists: musician "Luce Cannon" (first person narration) and customer service drone turned talent scout "Rosemary Laws" (third person narration). A small bit of Luce's story is set in the "Before", where she's giving a live concert in the face of rising terrorist threats. But that threat quickly becomes reality when a football stadium and its audience are blown up. The second part of that one-two punch is the "pox": a nasty, contagious disease that also kills a bunch of people.
Which basically kills off live music. Bummer.
So we're quickly transported to "After". America quickly goes to permanent and serious lockdown mode. Everybody has a "hoodie", which provides you with Zoom-in-virtual-reality. Deliveries by drone, because you don't want to catch anything or get blown up. That becomes the new normal, Rosemary barely remembers anything different. She works from home, doing customer service for "Superwally", a retailer providing all your needs. But she gets an offer for a new job, seeking out rogue musical talent for "StageHoloLive" (SHL), provider of VR concerts, drained of spontaneity and communal vibes. This moves her out of her comfort zone of social isolation. And she meets up with Luce, who's running a bootleg illegal speakeasy where live music is presented. And then… things happen that reveal that unbeknownst to Rosemary, she's actually been sent on a dual mission by her corporate SHL masters! (Spoilers below, beware.)
- As I said, it's good. It's especially good at describing the live music
scene, the gritty details of setting up, plugging in, trashing hotel rooms, etc.
(The author is a practicing musician herself, so…)
Rosemary and Luce are both lesbians. (As is the author, so…) A couple trans folks show up along
the way. Nobody's explicitly labeled as a heterosexual. So this makes me wonder if the Nebula
"Best Novel" isn't really "Best Eye-Poking to the Cis-heternormative Patriarchy".
It's clear that the combination terrorism/pandemic threat has profoundly changed American
society. Think: Covid, up by a couple orders of magnitude.
It's not (particularly) clear how this affects anything other than the American music biz, though.
It would have been nice to have a little wider take on what's going on globally
and in other important sectors. There are hints, but come on.
Spoiler coming: SHL's hidden motive is to poach live talent from illegal concert venues,
and then call in the cops to shut the venues down. Whoa, is that a sustainable
strategy? If you need new talent coming into the corporate pipeline, why would you
want to shut down the sources of such talent?
I kept waiting for a Grand Conspiracy to be revealed between Big Corporations and
the State: laws and regulations based in paranoid fear long after actual threats
are gone, designed to keep customers locked
into "SuperWally" and "Mickeys" (the dominant restauranteur).
So, bottom line, a fun read. I don't read much science fiction these days, so I can't say it's not the best. But I wanted more.