Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Our Lady of the Open Road, by Sarah Pinsker

Our Lady of the Open Road is nominated for a Nebula in the Novelette category, and I have to say it's my favorite so far.  Speculative fiction at its best is some combination of social and technical speculation--usually one drives, and it makes a point about the other.  In this case it's social speculation making points about technology.  I agree with some of the points and not others, which makes it even more interesting.

Our protagonist is an aging punk rocker, once famous in a different genre but now doing music she loves for just barely enough money to survive.  That would seem a typical musician's fate, but in this case it's driven by her determination not to give in to the new dominant recording technology, StageHolo.  The remaining live music acts are getting by on nostalgic venues in abandoned parts of cities.

The idea that recorded performances are going to drive out live ones goes back to the first recordings.  Pinsker adds some new drivers by extrapolating a continuing of a trend to pull into our devices and not risk contact with other people.  There are so many excuses not to go to a live venue--it's expensive, inconvenient (public transportation becomes inconsistent), and increasingly dangerous.  In this world, Wal-Mart has pretty much taken over retail, and employment in general.  Self driving cars have taken over the road.  And StageHolo, an apparently pirate-proof and immersive technology, has taken over performance.

The protagonist's drama within this setting is kind of prosaic--she is feeling her age and perhaps tiring of the struggle, but finds some hope--but the story is very well told and draws one in emotionally.

Do I think this future is realistic?  In my view it misses a lot.  Performers make most of their money doing live shows--ease of piracy and cheapness of streaming make recordings something of a loss leader.  That same ubiquity has given many more musicians a chance to find an audience online.  That never would have happened when radio was the only free mass distribution of music.  And we are a very long way off from duplicating both the realness of live entertainers and the feeling of experiencing a performance with others.  One can have somewhat similar experiences with recording and live tweets etc., but the experiences are complimentary, not competing.  No, this is only a plausible future in the saddest of dystopias, and the story is not otherwise set up that way.

Consider it a warning, with four stars.  Long live performers, live music, and written SF.

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