Everfair: Literary Steampunk [yes, really] as “What If?”
One of the fun things steampunk has been known to do is change history. Some history doesn’t seem to lend itself to a steampunk touch, or so Michael Swanwick said on a 2009 steampunk panel with Everfair‘s author, Nisi Shawl.
You don’t have to know the history of the Congo Free State to appreciate the rich complexity of Shawl’s first novel, Everfair. But it certainly enhances it. Thus, let me begin with a an edited excerpt from wikipedia:
Leopold II’s reign in the Congo eventually earned infamy due to the increasing mistreatment of the indigenous peoples… even though his ostensible purpose in the region was to uplift the local people and develop the area. Under Leopold II’s administration, the Congo Free State became one of the greatest international scandals of the early-20th century. The report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who had been responsible for killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903… The boldest estimate concludes that the forced labour system led directly and indirectly to the deaths of 20 percent of the population.
I read about the origins of the book long before it was published. In fact, it was eagerly anticipated for years. As Shawl explains, she impulsively went on record stating that she was going to write it, and that above-mentioned Swanwick [who had already scoffed at the premise] would beg to read it!
“I went to the 2009 World Fantasy convention because I had two things up for awards: my short story “Good Boy,” and the collection of my stories it appeared in, Filter House. They put me on a panel about steampunk; it was the only one with room. I thought long and hard about my reasons for avoiding that particular subgenre and came to understand that its tacit imperialism and colonialism were the culprits. So I swore publicly, seated on the stage beside Michael Swanwick, Liz Gorinsky, and the VanderMeers, that I would write a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo, the site of the Victorian Era’s worst human rights atrocities—and make Swanwick beg to read it!”
As for Swanwick? Well, read for yourself. But here’s a tidibit for the impatient:
I wish I had the time expand on all this at great length. Alas, I have obligations. I cannot here do justice to this wise and important book. All I can do is urge you to read Everfair.
So, okay, I’m telling you a lot without telling you anything. Let me tell you why you should read this book. This isn’t a frolic or a romp, though it has an air battle, some love stories that break convention, and a diversity of characters and ideas that will keep you thinking and remembering long after you close the book. Its roots in our real history are deep and well-researched. Scratch the surface of just about any fascinating aspect of Everfair and you’ll find a bit of reality that it stands on–before taking off in its own direction.
Thus, the title of this Everfair review–the literary and steampunk what if?
What if there had been an alternative to Leopold II’s maiming, murdering and atrocities imposed on the people of the Congo?
Shawl takes the kinds of groups most likely to attempt colonization in this area [a Utopian group hoping to build their perfect land and a group of African American missionaries hoping to save it] and gives a stir and… voila. What follows is thirty years of alternative history that zigs when you expect it to zag, and never fails to fascinate and awe.
As many have pointed out, this is not a typically constructed novel. Thus my other reference to its literary nature. Shawl has been known for her short stories prior to this, and this excursion into the novel is actually more like a series of short stories–all told chronologically about this group of people who are attempting to make Everfair the perfect nation it was intended to be, in each of their own interpretaions of perfection.
I listened to it as an audiobook and loved Allyson Johnson, the narrator’s, presentation. Everfair had me listening every time I got the chance, so eager was I to know how this was all going to evolve and end.
And I mustn’t forget — air-canoes! [The steampunk in Shawl’s world is influenced by its cultural settings, which are splendid and fresh.] Steampunk body parts! Political intrigue! Questioning of religion! Sexual content! Cats and magic!
It’s an amazing and ambitious novel, and from where I sit, ever so worth the wait.