Steampunk comes of Age Created by ggrihn on 9/6/2016 8:18:11 PM
Everfair, by Nisi Shawl
Reviewed by Gregory G.H. Rihn, Steampunk Chronicle Literary Editor
Everfair, the new novel by award-winning writer Nisi Shawl, has set a new benchmark in Steampunk fiction. Everfair is a complex, multigenerational story of an alternate world, not far removed from our own, in which Africans unite with white members of the Fabian Socialist society to create a multi-racial free society carved out of the colonial hell that was the so-called “Congo Free State,” a personal fiefdom of King Leopold of Belgium from 1885 to 1908.
The cast of the book is racially, sexually, politically, and religiously diverse, and all these threads twine together to bring to life the history of a new nation. The adventure is not without friction: white Christian reformers who sincerely care for the plight of the native people under Leopold’s reign still can’t bring themselves to accept interracial marriage—or the results of it. Africans who are willing to accept the help of the whites have no interest in being converted to Christianity, and don’t see Bibles as a strategic resource. Representative democracy meshes poorly with the power of the local King, and American and British immigrants don’t understand why the indigenous people might bridle at making English the official language of the new country.
The story of Everfair—the country’s English name, adopted from an ecstatic verse by “the Poet,” Daisy Albin, a member of the Fabian Society, and one of the new country’s visionaries—who has the uncomfortable experience of seeing her vision come true, but then be overtaken by events both personal and political--, is a multilayered one. The book spans thirty years, from 1889, when a black American investigator visits the Congo and documents the appalling conditions, to 1919, when Everfair, having weathered its war for independence against Leopold, the perilous years of World War I, and internal upheavals as old stress-points give way, looks toward a still-uncertain, but hopeful future. In the course of the land’s history, there is life and death, battle and murder, healing and hope, capture and rescue, and love and loss. Few of the characters get everything they want, and, humans being humans, often spend years denying themselves what they want which they could have had with the right word.
Ms. Shawl’s use of Steampunk elements as historical levers is nuanced. The major technological leap is the “Littlest Heater,” a power source that uses “rare earths” that have been a secret of African priests. This is built upon by the use of Western metallurgy to make light steam engines that make a fleet of locally built dirigibles, or “sky canoes” a potent force for liberation. Steampunk prosthetics are a reaction to the barbarous practices of Leopold’s thugs, who used amputation of hands and feet as a terror tactic. But Everfair does not miraculously morph into an enclave of super-science. When World War I comes to Africa, a workshop producing twenty-five machine guns a week is deemed effective war production.
In addition, the Africans have spiritual and ancestral strength to draw on: one character becomes the new priest of the god Loango, and another turns her family’s power to communicate with animal minds to the purposes of freedom.
Everfair is a fascinating piece of writing, which has my highest recommendation.
Everfair at Amazon