I can’t remember the last time I read a steampunk novel, but I always knew I would be reading Nisi Shawl’s Everfair as soon as it came out. A what-if take on the outcome of the colonization of Africa and the enslavement and brutalization enacted upon the people of the Congo, Everfair uses steampunk not as a shiny gloss, but as an integral mechanism powering her alternate history in which the existence of the Belgian Congo takes a markedly different turn for the better.
In the novel, King Leopold II does colonize the Congo and enact the historical atrocities he’s become somewhat known for (i.e., many of us likely kinda-sorta know he was a bad man who treated the people of the Congo, but far fewer of us ever learned or know now the true extent of the violence and exploitation and eradication of millions of people that went down, all in the name of rubber production and modernity).The difference is that the real-life English organization the Fabian Socialists work together with African American missionaries to “purchase” some of the Congo from Leopold. This piece of land to which they move to becomes the beginning of a new country, where recently-enslaved and newly-freed Africans, the area’s original rulers and subjects, black Americans, Europeans, and Chinese indentured servants (who the Belgians initially brought to build the railroads) work together to create a true utopia out of the ashes of the area’s recent history of violent, destructive colonialism. Everfair reflects a tapestry of individuals intersecting with and bouncing off the intertwined existence and issues of racism, sexism, sexuality, disability, class, and nationality. Steampunk technology gives the country a military advantage and informs the growth of their societal identity as a powerful, valuable new player in the international arena.
Everfair is told from the perspectives of multiple characters over the course of twenty-odd years, culminating in the aftermath of World War I. Prominent POVs include that of King Mwenda of the Congo region; his favorite wife Josephine, an Angolan of African and Portuguese descent who is also an excellent spy; Daisy Albin, a white Englishwoman, member of the Fabian society, and poet whose idealism and progressive values often blind her to the reality right in front of her; Lisette Toutournier; a mixed-race Frenchwoman whose aptitude for politics and intrigue gives her status and power even as she never forgets how her mixed-race status disenfranchises her; Thomas Jefferson Wilson; an African American missionary-turned-priest; Fwendi, an escaped slave, and many more.
This book is primarily successful as a microcosm with which to explore what it might mean to create a utopia at the turn of the twentieth century, one rooted in the ideals of humanitarianism and egalitarianism, with each of the characters bringing to the table what values and societal mores must be either present or abandoned to better create the ideal society. For instance, Everfair is a place where polyamory and same-gender relationships are of the norm (partly thanks to the Fabian’s Society disapproval of traditional marriage as perpetrating both gender and class inequality). Disability is also less stigmatized, due to the many escaped Congo slaves whose hands were chopped off by the Belgians. Tink, a Chinese resident, a master machinist, and the creator of Everfair’s many steampunk marvels (air canoes, anyone?) designs mechanical limbs for all who need them, and these limbs’ designs evolve to serve both functional and aesthetic purposes. One of my favorite aspects of Everfair is the way in which Fwendi, a POV character who is one of escaped slaves, is described as wearing a different mechanical limb in different scenes, depending on which physical motions she needs to make or which one she feels would look best on her that day.
On the other hand, religion, or lack thereof, remains a contentious issue between the atheist Fabian Socialists and the Protestant African American missionaries. Also present are Africans natives who practice their own people’s religions and continue to do so in Everfair. The power of religion goes both ways—the founders of Everfair who came over as missionaries believe spreading the message of Christ is as important an issue as food, housing, and medical care. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson Wilson, a founder and one of those very missionaries, slowly sheds his Christian faith for that of the spirit-based religion of King Mwenda’s people, and in doing so finds himself occupying a new role in Everfair’s hierarchy.
Race and racism are similarly discordant notes in Everfair’s self-actualization, albeit more subtle and less easily untangled. For all that the European immigrants, particularly Fabian Socialists such as Daisy Albin, profess their belief that all humans are equal and that people of all races are welcomed and treated equally in Everfair, their ingrained assumptions and attitudes say otherwise, whether that’s assuming that of course there will be a holiday celebrating the settling of Everfair (never mind that this celebration comes out of similar mindset held by Leopold that Belgium’s “acquisition” of the Congo means it’s now his) or saying with firm conviction that miscegenation is a terrible practice. This latter statement is said by Daisy Albin to Lisette, her longtime love—in saying this, Daisy deeply hurts Lisette while remaining unaware she’s done anything of the kind. Everfair may be a utopia compared to outside countries, but white supremacy and colonialism still leave their marks on Everfair’s burgeoning nationhood, even more so as the proto-country takes steps to trade and ally themselves with other countries.
Everfair is a complicated, complex, and thoughtful novel. On a structural level it was frustrating to read, due to the combination of the short lengths of the chapters, the jumps in time and location between each chapter (sometimes months, other times years), and the alternating cast of POVs, none of whom ever felt like they got enough page time for me to feel fully comfortable with who they were as people beyond a surface-level understanding. While the book has an understandable narrative, this narrative is the result of closely hugging the pre-established, historical chronological timeline. The effect is that the book becomes a story of Everfair itself and less of the people involved in its origins and subsequent growth. As a result of the time-jumps, I found it slow-going to read because I would grow confused with had happened or changed in the length of time that had passed, and I’d also be struggling for context with what was going in in this new time, with this new POV that was different and changed from the previous time and POV. The character POVs serve as viewpoints into the different times and goings-on in Everfair, but that also means that not all of them have recognizable character arcs or personal narratives, which I definitely missed.
While I do think Everfair is a good book that’s doing important things with the SFF/steampunk genre, history and the historical record, and re-centering the narrative on peoples whose stories are rarely or never told, I did not enjoy reading it very much. That’s something I’m ok with—I’m comfortable with the reality that there will be some books I will consider worthwhile but that I personally don’t care for. In the case of Everfair, it came down to the structure with which the story was told. I appreciate the story it tells of Everfair, but I couldn’t connect with the story because the characters weren’t front-and-center enough for me.