How blissful it is to be wealthy and free in the far-future world of Premee Mohamed’s new novella; but And What Can We Offer You Tonight (Washington, DC: Neon Hemlock Press, 2021) is not about them, it is about how the other half live, or attempt not to die, in the decomposed late-capitalist husk of the unnamed city that is both backdrop and protagonist in Mohamed’s second novella (and third book) of 2021. Whatever catastrophe befell this city, the result is a distorted nightmare of corpse-filled canals, desecrated churches, and seedy oppulence. And even though it appears that we are long gone, the world we know buried beneath salt and chemicals and waste, there are fragments that survive – wings fashioned from the kevlar of bulletproof jackets, The Phantom of the Opera – along with a stinging sense that all this inequity and iniquity was forseeable.
The collapse that has presumably occurred has taken a lot, including the last remnants of any ethical values we cherish, and the people here are always at risk of dying when they no longer possess value (apart from the nutritional value of their meat – it’s hard to see how a world as dank and polluted as this could create adequate protein for the rich, let alone the hoi polloi, without a little Soylent Green-esque magic) or are unable to be of service. The lower classes like Jewel and her friends are rats in gilded cages, spinning the wheels until such a time as they’re thrown away, or their tail is chopped off. And right away in the first chapters we are introduced to Jewel, one of the people lucky not to be dead but unlucky to be alive. The tale begins with a death which is not a death, a coffin-popping-open shock that lays a priest out horizontal, and a little scene-setting that establishes just how tough a gig it is to work as a courtesan at the House of Bicchieri.
In her short stories and novels, most recently These Lifeless Things (Oxford: Rebellion, 2021), Mohamed has shown she can ‘Do the Police in Different Voices’, her narrators distinct and convincing. These Lifeless Things is notable for a meticulously designed narrative which switched between voices and built to a shattering conclusion. In the wasted capitalist land of And What Can We Offer You Tonight, Jewel’s voice, a patois distinguished by its rhythmic repetitions and classy cadence, signals something new; to read Jewel, to hear her, is to witness the literary flair of a writer whose confidence is growing with each and every book, and that is precious indeed, and worth the price of admission (and repeat admission for an audiobook, if and when). But come for the eloquence of the courtesan, and stay for the worldbuilding and the tension-ratcheting and the overall polish of the whole shebang. Stay for the tale of friends staying alive and sticking it to the man, or woman, or system. Stay for the way against all odds, these caged birds rage, held together by friendship and a need to survive, no matter how bleak.
Although we humans who read And What Can We Offer You Tonight will likely never live in quite as degraded a world as Jewel and Winfield and Nero, many will have endured, and will continue to endure, lives that are, as Hobbes put it, ‘poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Yet there is some hope to be teased out of this fable that Mohamed has speculated up – a chaser to the toxic shot of this dumpster fire of a society – and it is that we can be comrades, we can care for each other, life never needs to be solitary. And so leaving the show, walking out of this dazzling, humorous, sparky piece speculative fiction, believe that life can change, that we can change lives, that tonight there is the offer of the impossible becoming possible.
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