I encountered Mary Fan's work for the first time in the science fiction/mystery crossover anthology, Love, Murder and Mayhem which I reviewed here as part of the blog tour for that anthology. I loved Mary Fan's story about the artificial intelligence named Sherlock and mentioned the YA Brave New Girls science fiction anthologies that she co-edits in that review. Mary Fan then sent me a review copy of Brave New Girls #2 which was released last month. I reviewed it here and was rewarded with a great many more views than I expected.
This brings me to the current review of Mary Fan's novel Starswept, a YA dystopian romance. I purchased it on Amazon when Mary Fan informed me that it had just been released. Starswept is the first novel that I've read by this author. I'm going to tell you in this review why science fiction fans should consider reading it even if they don't usually read YA or romance. Mary Fan didn't request a review of Starswept from me. I am voluntarily reviewing it because I think the readers of this blog will want to know about it.
First, I'd like to call attention to the cover which made me want to read Starswept when I first saw it on Mary Fan's website. It's not only beautiful, but it said to me that it's a science fiction novel about a musician. There aren't very many of those. The cover also told me that this book is part of the effort to bring diverse voices to science fiction and fantasy in defiance of a right wing attempt to suppress those voices. See a 2016 article by Damien Walter about the "Sad Puppy" phenomenon that appeared in the U.K. Guardian here.
Mary Fan is a Chinese American author. Her teen protagonist, Iris Lei, is also Chinese American. I thought that the name Iris was very appropriate. In Greek mythology, Iris is the goddess of the rainbow which represents diversity in the current American cultural context. In a biblical context, the rainbow represents a promise that the biblical deity will not destroy the world by flood. So the rainbow is a hopeful symbol in the dark times that both we and Iris are experiencing. For those who are reading this review in the distant future, a rainbow would be very welcome now in the face of some truly horrifying hurricanes that are setting records for destruction.
I am not fond of dystopian darkness, but I will read dystopias that deal with themes that I find compelling. In our corporate society, the arts become commodities that meet the needs of particular audience segments. This is fine so far as it goes, but the artist is integral to the arts. Music, the particular art involved in Starswept , is very much dependent on the artist's performance. Key elements in performance are such unquantifiable aspects as immersion--the ability of the artist and the audience to be "swept away" by the music. No audience would be satisfied by a technically correct reproduction of the notes recorded in the musical score. The audience and the artist both want to be moved by the experience. Mary Fan's "if this goes on" premise asks what would happen if there was an attempt to control or even erase the uniqueness of each artist for corporate purposes. What if the one of a kind experience of a performance didn't matter so much to an audience of aliens who don't value individuality? What would music and musicians become in such a setting?
Iris and all the other students at Iris' art school must find a patron before they become twenty one or they lose the opportunity to practice their art. The need to find and keep a patron is scarcely new to the arts. That's been going on for centuries, but what if there was no second chance? Mozart could die in a garret at an even earlier age than he did. The waste of talent and human potential in Starswept are frightening. Mary Fan shows us dramatically how artists can be crushed through the eyes of Iris who is determined to escape such a fate.
Fortunately, Iris isn't the only one who struggles against the system in which she is caught. Iris finds her romantic counterpart from among this underground group of rebels. I was rooting for their relationship even though it seemed impossible. Since this is the first book in a series, we don't know whether their cause will succeed. The struggle continues, but the rainbow exemplified by Iris appears as a sign of hope in the sky. For me, Starswept is a strong candidate for best YA novel of 2017.