Everfair by Nisi Shawl
“The settlers of Everfair had come here naively at best, arrogantly at worst. Due to the orders of the king they had found the country seemingly empty. In the fight against Leopold, their assistance had been most valuable, and they had also brought to the cause the help of Europeans and Americans who would never otherwise have cared for any African’s plight.
“But by their very presence they poisoned what they sought to save. How could they not? Assuming they knew the best about so many things – not even realizing they had made such assumptions – they acted without considering other viewpoints and remained in ignorance in spite of the broadest of hints.”
Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (2016) is a timely reminder of the power of SF and fantasy to imagine a better world. It is a richly imagined alternate history in which the British socialist Fabian society and African American missionaries set up a Utopian society in the Belgian Congo for the victims of King Leopold II’s atrocities and escapees from the slave trade. Shawl expertly fuses the pulpy aesthetics of steampunk with a magical realist take on African mythology to create a prism through which the human rights abuses perpetuated by Leopold are thrown into stark relief, whilst imagining a world in which the people of the Congo Free State were given a means to fight back against their oppressors.
Everfair is a moving story about resistance to tyranny and oppression. It is made all the more powerful and poignant as Shawl’s characters are those frequently overlooked or written out of history, from a range of different countries, beliefs, backgrounds and sexualities. Shawl is committed to exploring unflinchingly the complexities of their relationships. Her Utopianism is hard won; the various citizens of Everfair must still struggle against the entrenched systems of privilege, prejudice and control, both politically and in their personal lives.
Everfair plays bold and interesting games with genre. This is a book that features airship liberations of Leopold’s labour camps, by ex-Christian ministers who become avatars of African gods and African kings with brass steampunk hands that shoot knives. It’s worth unpicking why Shawl’s audacious genre mashup is so powerful. Steampunk is a compelling sub-genre with a strong visual aesthetic and an inventive sense of fun. However its exploration of a Victorian era enhanced by fantastical steam technology is frequently problematic, celebrating the aesthetics of the Victorian age whilst failing to acknowledge the destructive legacy of British Imperialism.
Shawl’s premise allows her to have all the fun of steampunk technology, from airships to brass gadgets and beyond, whilst telling a story about the worst horrors of colonialism and imperialism. The tools and tropes of steampunk become the means by which the native population and their allies resist and fight back against Leopold and his empire. The bold derringer-do of steampunk airship adventures with fun gadgets provides a sharp and poignant contrast to the vividly portrayed atrocities of Leopold’s tyranny. Shawl carefully manages the tone, so that the light fun of the former accentuates the horror of the carefully researched real history. Rather than detracting from or clashing with each other, the fantastical world forces the reader to confront the very real failings of our own world’s history.
Nowhere is this better symbolised than in the brass multi-tool prosthetic limbs constructed for the citizens of Everfair. So many of the characters in the book are missing hands in reference to Leopold’s real life policy of having his men amputate the hands of any Congolese who didn’t produce enough rubber. King Mwenda’s and Fwendi’s prosthetic hands are both a reminder of the human rights abuses committed by Leopold’s men in our world and an example of technology and alternate history being used to imagine a better world. In Everfair, the resistance of the people of Everfair brings Leopold’s atrocities to an earlier end, saving countless lives. Similarly the prosthetic limbs show the technology of steampunk being inventively harnessed to improve the lives of victims of amputation, demonstrating the true Utopian potential of the genre that frequently goes untapped.
Everfair’s reliance on steampunk technology also smartly links to one of the main themes of the novel. The country’s accelerated tech comes from its strength in diversity, being built by collaborations between Chinese ex-coolies who worked on the railroads, African navigators and American engineers. It is a breakthrough only made possible by Everfair’s Utopian openness. However Shawl doesn’t shy away from depicting the difficulties faced by so many people from different backgrounds in striving for a common goal.
In particular, Everfair deftly examines the privileges and prejudices of its non-African characters, particularly the white ones, and how this affects their interactions and attitudes towards their African counterparts. Shawl portrays the full costs of these difficulties in communication both politically and personally. Everfair’s hard earned freedom and peace is put in jeopardy because of it, whilst Lisette’s relationship with her lover Daisy is derailed by Daisy’s prejudice against miscegenation which she fails to understand just how hurtful that is given Lisette’s mixed race background. Similarly, Lisette’s heritage means that Jackie Owen, the Fabian society funder who secures the money for buying Everfair’s land, is able to manipulate Lisette into helping him against her will. Jackie has enough sense of moral outrage against the atrocities of Leopold’s rule to act against it, yet despite being a socialist he is fully willing to use the mechanisms of the racist, paternalistic society he is fighting against to achieve his own aims.
Everfair also draws on African mythology and magical realism, adding another layer to the story. African American missionary Thomas Jefferson Wilson find himself forsaking Christianity in favour of the African God Loango, with whom he makes a pact to save his life. This gives him great powers which he can access in a dream state, allowing him to hurl lightning and fireballs on the battlefield against Leopold’s forces. Fwendi, a gifted young Congolese woman who winds up working as a spy has the ability to transfer her consciousness into cats. This allows her to use her feline troops to infiltrate agencies and steal secret documents. These elements serve to link African mythology to the western fantasy of steampunk, emphasising Everfair’s cosmopolitan ethos as well as giving the book its own distinctive flavour. The elements of African mythology being real also symbolise how the non-African characters must leave their preconceptions and cultural assumptions behind and accept those of their new home.
Underlying all of Everfair are Shawl’s well drawn characters. The book boasts a large cast of unusual and well developed characters who interact in complex ways. From Lisette, the mixed background lesbian spy and author who has a fascination with machines, to Josina, King Mwenda’s favourite queen and cunning spy and stateswoman, to Tink the Chinese inventor, Shawl’s characters come from all corners of the globe and from a wide range of backgrounds. Shawl has a talent for fleshing out characters with very little text, a throw away remark or a slight gesture revealing much.
As Everfair fights to gain its independence and with the encroaching World War to understand its place in the wider world, the characters frequently disagree about what the country is and what it should stand for. However Shawl firmly believes that, with patience and understanding, people can communicate with each other and learn to live in peace. In these troubled times, this is an inspiring and uplifting message.
This review appeared on Fantasy-Faction on February 1, 2017