Book review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

 

Alternate histories are an interesting fiction genre.

Emboldened by the endless openendedness of “What if?”, they surge forward along an entirely new part of the time/space continuum, merrily playing Sliding Doors with history, asking us to imagine how different the world would be if one crucial aspect at one pivotal moment had been just a little bit different.

It’s a fascinating exercise, one that shines a revealing light on history, humanity and society at a particular point in time, and Nisi Shawl, known for her fantasy and sci-fi short stories, has taken the genre with all its endless possibilities and run with it, giving us in the process the mostly sublime delights of Everfair.

Running from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century just past the cessation of World War One, Everfair wonders, in its all steampunk glory, what the history of colonialism in Africa might have been if someone, or more precisely, a dedicated group of someones, had dared to stand up to the ceaseless tide of repression, death and exploitation that marked the age.

Particularly what might have happened to Congo, the fecund lush centre of Africa that at the time of the novel’s opening is in the grip of the brutal greed and madness of King Leopold II who perpetrated what came to be known by contemporaries of the time as the “Congo Horrors”, massacring millions in pursuit of purely financial gain.

This was no project of the Belgian state; rather Leopold’s stake in the Congo was private, a manifestly capital undertaking that primarily sought to exploit the regions richness in resources such as rubber which was harvested wild at the expense of countless millions of lives.

“The reverend lieutenant explained his program and the fire flickered, died to embers. Letter-writing and petitions to Parliament was what he asked of them. A movement along the lines of Abolitionism. Which had been well and good in its time.
But Jackie had a better idea.” (P.30)

As you might expect with a project with no judicial oversight and little to no accountability, abuses were rife, with entire villages razed to the ground by a paramilitary army, the Force Publique, should anyone so much as stand in the way of Leopold II’s rapacious exploitation of land that had, for all intents and purposes been stolen from its people, regardless of the legal niceties employed to paper over the wholly unpalatable reality.

Everfair steps into the chamber of horrors, musing with robust historical accuracy and a penetrating on the colonial politics and culture of the time, what might have happened if a group of somewhat more enlightened people – Shawl is careful not to turn these people into saints, who are riven with their own shortcomings and failings – including adherents of the Fabian Society in England (it gave rise to the Labour Party) and African-American missionaries had taken control of much of this land and stood against the evil of Leopold II’s ugly hold on the region.

 

Nisi Shawl (image courtesy UAH)

 

As an exploration of a “What if?” scenario, Everfair is peerless, taking a deep dive into what the setting up of a state dedicated to equality, fair labour laws, democracy and freedom might have looked like.

With steampunk sensibilities fully engaged, the novel documents the growth and then decline of Everfair over a period spanning 30 years (1889-1919), eschewing the genre’s usual predilection for wrapping this period in a cosy glow of hagiography-tinged nostalgia and challenging assumptions of what noble and enlightened actually looks like on the ground, especially to the indigenous people led by King Mwenda and Queen Josina, who initially cooperate with the well-meaning interlopers before demanding, quite rightly, that their sovereignty be heeded for once.

It’s this clash of idealism and reality that proves most fascinating.

As people like Fabian Society founders Jackie Owen and Daisy Albin, playwright Matty Jamison, French nurse Lisette Toutournier, Macao escaper labourer Tink and American missionary Martha Hunter surge into the region, determined from entirely different vantage points, to stop Leopold’s craven brutality in its track and establish a just and free society, we witness just how hard it is to create something perfect when the people seeking to do the creating are as flawed as the rest of us.

Well-meaning and idealistic yes, but flawed and as each time-stamped chapter races forward, we are taken on a wholly unique look at the history of colonialism where its excesses are blunted, its abuses stymied and progress, both technological and societal, is allowed a free hand.

“The king hadn’t anticipated that. Who was there to oppose him?
The Europeans and Americans were distracted by their plague … Everfair’s whites and Christians would have fought in protest of their exile, but lacking foreign support, they shouldn’t have any choice in the matter–if General Wilson hadn’t so surprisingly taken up the Christians’ cause.” (P. 348)

It’s impressive stuff, and Shawl does a masterful job of worldbuilding, of conjuring up what-ifs, and maybes from the imaginative ether and given them richness and vitality and truth.

The only flaw in this wholly unique perspective is the fact that so much time and effort is given to exploring what might have happened, both good and bad, flawed and not, and the consequences of these actions, that the characters get a little lost in the mix.

It’s a pity that we don’t spend more time with them because they are a fascinatingly diverse bunch (sexually, religiously, idealistically), people who aim for the stars and land far closer to earth but who at least give the idea of putting flesh on their noble conjecturing a worthwhile shot.

Everfair is very much an ideas-driven narrative rather than character-driven, although we are given some insight into the private lives of these people, with a result that while the journey we are taken is engrossing, thought-provoking and alive with alternate possibilities, it often fails to connect emotionally.

On balance though, Everfair is gorgeously rich in ideas, history, humanity and the delicious prospect of what might happen if only the better angels of our nature were given a more prominent seat at the table, a luxuriously in-depth, compelling, enlightened and beautifully written take on a dark chapter in colonial history that could have played out so much differently.

 

 

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