Book Review: 'Everfair,' By Nisi ShawlNisi Shawl's new alternative history novel imagines a group of socialists and missionaries who found a new nation — Everfair — as a safe haven for those fleeing Belgian atrocities in the Congo.
I've been excited to read Everfair for the last six years.
Back in 2010 I attended Wiscon, a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention in Madison, Wisc. that's entering its 41st year. I participated in a panel called "The Politics of Steampunk," about a subgenre of fantasy notable in popular media for being sepia-toned, gear-ridden, and frustratingly nostalgic towards empire and colonialism. One of the things we discussed was the steampunk work we felt was challenging that nostalgia — and Nisi Shawl mentioned that she was writing a steampunk novel set in what was then called the Congo Free State, tackling the period of time when King Leopold II of Belgium employed mercenaries to enslave, maim and murder the indigenous people of the Congo in his pursuit of natural rubber. Learning that a writer of Shawl's caliber was undertaking so monumental a work at novel-length was thrilling. Since then I've followed every scrap of information about the novel that would become Everfair.
Everfair chooses as its historical point of divergence the moment when the Fabian Society — a real-life British society that gave rise to the Labour Party and was involved in founding The New Statesman magazine — decides not to endow a college (which would have become our world's London School of Economics) and opts instead to use its wealth to purchase vast tracts of land from King Leopold and create a safe haven for refugees fleeing his tyranny. The Fabians partner with African-American missionaries to found the nation of Everfair within the borders of Leopold's Congo — on land stolen from its indigenous people, led by King Mwende and his favorite lady, Queen Josina. At first, King Mwende's interests dovetail with those of the settlers, especially as they work together to develop the technological prowess and intelligence network that will protect them from European powers — but eventually tensions over Everfair's foundation and operation threaten to tear the fledgling nation apart.
The scope and ambition of this book is immense. Shawl has marshalled a wealth of research in imagining, not only an alternate history for the Congo, but a cascading sequence of consequences for global politics in its wake. The cast of characters is beautifully diverse in terms of faith, ability, ethnicities, sexual orientation and nationalities, making the web of relationships intricate and fraught; Shawl is brilliant at showing where the various ideals, motivations and desires for Everfair as a utopian experiment bump up against each other. From wealthy white families whose free attitudes towards sexuality and plural marriage compromise their return to England, to light-skinned characters deciding not to pass, to queer characters struggling to understand each other across racial lines, to indigenous characters coming to terms with their new prosthetics, the depth and breadth of experience represented in a richly imagined setting is a huge achievement.
That said — and I don't think I've ever said this about a stand-alone book in a genre glutted with trilogies — I wish the story had been split up over more volumes, to allow these fascinating people room to breathe and interact with each other in more sustained ways. While Everfair dwells very thoroughly in descriptions of setting, mechanics, dress, minutiae, it skims very lightly where relationships, conversations, and motivations are concerned. Frequently — certainly enough that it became frustrating — chapters don't so much end as stop, ceasing at just the moment where one person would need to speak to another about something difficult or heartfelt, with the next chapter picking up weeks, months, sometimes years later.
This works all right in the beginning of the book, where I could see interesting juxtapositions of chapters — young Lisette Toutournier discovering the freedom a bicycle grants her in France, followed by Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson confronting the horrors that made that bicycle possible — but towards the middle and end, Everfair feels like one long, slow pan across space and time, insufficiently anchored in characters whose interactions resemble a sequence of vignettes set against the backdrop of Shawl's carefully designed world. I was reminded of the book's dirigibles: sailing over a landscape, dumping emotional ballast and then rising higher until the people are indistinguishable from the topography.
An epigraph to the novel says, "Look for a long time at that which pleases you, and a longer time at that which gives you pain." It's an important exhortation, one that pins Shawl's project into place; look into the heart of steampunk, take it apart, and don't flinch away from the blood and bone caught in the gears. I only wish I could have looked for a longer time at the characters engaging with each other — pleasurably or painfully — as they built something better between them.