With Empathy and Imagination: a Review of Everything For Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052–2072 by M.E. O’Brien & Eman Abdelhadi
Ben Berman Ghan
Everything For Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072. M.E. O’Brien & Eman Abdelhadi. Common Notions, August 2, 2022.
The world loves a good apocalypse story. We lap up imagery of dystopian violence, romanticize the aesthetics of every-man-for-themselves destruction. But perhaps imagining these cruel oblivions has become just a little too easy. Maybe the real challenge in a time of (so many different) crises is to imagine a path forward beyond destruction — one where human beings do not turn their backs on the hard work necessary to live beyond our time of social, political, and ecological strife.
The future that M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi present in Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 isn’t one free from the blood, trauma, and harsh realities of life. Instead, they offer a vision of community and healing that feels starkly tangible — a place and time for the long process of healing from the many traumas of the world that was, in a world so different from our own without once becoming unrecognizable. In twelve fictional interviews, O’Brien and Abdelhadi discuss the slow communization of New York City — and the world — with sex workers, freedom fighters, teenagers, healthcare workers, and scientists. Slowly but surely, a vivid rendering of this more cooperative future unfolds.
Everything for Everyone hits the hardest not in its reflections on the revolution of days gone by, but in its focus on the operations of the new world. The first interview, with Miss Kelley, focuses on the communization of food distribution at the fall of capitalism, which played a vital role in helping to birth the first communes of the city. Additionally, Kelley discusses the safe and healthy path forward for sex work (or skin work as the folks of 2067 might say), taken in a world without money. Here, Miss Kelly declares the evolution of the oldest profession to be “sex as care,” a necessary, therapeutic, and educational arm of societal growth.
The interviews juggle discussions between veterans of the pre-communized world and the children of the future. There’s something that makes my heart flutter a little, reading such lifelike teenage characters who express bafflement and even disgust at concepts like money, private property, binary genders, or nuclear families. In the middle of interviewing Kayla Puan — a teenage trans girl — on being raised in a commune, O’Brien and Abdelhadi discuss her experience of having dozens of parents, her desire to travel around the world, and her background in an all-teenage sub-commune, where youths receive autonomy and only partial supervision. Near the end of this, O’Brien asks: “You talked about your parents being Communists. Are you a communist?” All Puan can reply with is “I don’t even know what that means anymore! […] isn’t everyone a communist? What does it mean to be a communist today?” These are the book’s best moments, where you can feel the effect that this new world has had on its communities’ mental and physical health.
This isn’t to say that the book is flawless. There are some half-hearted attempts at “future lingo,” and only some of them work (“sib” as short for sibling works, “fec” replacing shit in common vernacular does not) in a world where everyone otherwise speaks pretty much like it’s 2022. While early reminiscences of war between organizers, governments, and fascist groups are initially compelling, such as Miss Kelley’s reminiscence on the people of New York vs. the police, I found myself impatient with these pieces later on. At a certain point, it might have been better to simply say there was a war, we won, and to make way for discussing the fantastic Alternative Land Projects turning streets into farms, or the biologists designing new animals to help bolster ecological growth in flooded cities.
Similarly, only some of the more science fictional elements worked for me. Certain technologies, such as nanites to help someone program (or deprogram) gender, tech to allow anyone regardless of sex or gender to “gestate” a baby, and the idea that many of our supercomputers have gained a kind of sentience but only spend their time dreaming, are all great. However, I couldn’t help but get thrown by a sudden aside about a space elevator, and one about Mars colonization efforts, which just didn’t feel in step with the more grassroots and personal approach of the rest of the book — though, by comparison, the long aside on how augmented reality dance groups connecting across the world created the post-capitalism internet is maybe my favourite thing ever.
When I think about Everything for Everyone, I inevitably come back to the interview with Zhou. Placed near the end of the timeline, it serves as a dizzying science fiction exposé of the potentials of biotech and ecological restoration, nurturing new forests and new creatures from the muck of our drowned cities — but woven together with a profoundly personal confrontation with mental health. O’Brien, as the interviewer, notes how Zhou is drawing a “parallel between integrating different parts of your mind, and the integration of human-use and ecological systems”. This is the core of the book’s project: to weave the sociological, the speculative, and the personal, and to do so with thrilling imagination and endlessly tender empathy. Everything for Everyone offers a much-needed future beyond destruction — a future where the work of kindness and cooperation is rewarded above all else.
Ben Berman Ghan is a writer and editor based in Tkaronoto/Toronto. He holds an HBA from The University of Toronto, and a Master’s degree in English Lit from Ryerson University. His fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in the likes of Abyss & Apex, Strange Horizons, and The Temz Review. He is the author of the short story collection What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books 2019), and the novella Visitation Seeds (845 Press 2020), and is an incoming PhD student at the University of Calgary. You can find him at @inkstainedwreck or inkstainedwreck.ca.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Alex Skopic. The author was acquainted with ARB through previous reviewing work. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Common Notions.