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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair cover.jpgI'm starting to think I should just read Andre Norton novels for the rest of my chemotherapy, because I'm finding complex, ambitious novels like this one difficult to parse in my current mentally-lethargic state. There are a lot of characters, a lot of locations, and a lot of story thrown at us in short bursts that form a kind of shifting mosaic. It's dazzling, but I tended to lose my way at times.

I know Nisi Shawl socially, and I remember a conversation with her when she had just started writing Everfair in which she said that steampunk was too Eurocentric and that she wanted to write some Afrocentric steampunk. So this is an alternate history about King Leopold II of Belgium's atrocities in the Congo, which amongst other things inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. What Shawl does is posit the creation of a new nation in the vicinity of the Congo, founded by a coalition of British Fabian socialists, freed American slaves and American missionaries, and local African tribes. This nation is called Everfair. At first I thought the steampunk aspects of the story -- steam bicycles and airships -- were tangential and extraneous to the alternate history, but what I eventually realized is that Shawl was speculating on how advanced technology could have been introduced into Africa in the late 19th century and how that technology might have allowed the Africans to defend themselves against Leopold. Leopold's forces were infamous for maiming their victims in gruesome ways, and Shawl makes good use of steampunk prosthetics as a response to these atrocities.

It seems from her Historical Note that Shawl sees Everfair as a kind of multiracial Utopia, but it's an ambiguous Utopia full of tension and conflict. Colonization of Africa by Europeans does not completely stop because of Everfair, and Everfair itself is depicted as having colonial aspects. The white members of the nation are still racist in the ways that white people of that era were. Despite the fact that Leopold is ultimately defeated by the forces of Everfair, it of course doesn't stop World War I from happening or Everfair and other African nations from being sucked into the war as proxies. Africa as a whole is still subject to European power rather than a driving force in the international economy. In the end, however, a balance is struck between contending forces in Everfair that could well be called Utopian.

One of the things that confused me as I was reading the book was the approach to technology. The way the airships are powered initially has to do with special earths provided by a tribe in Africa. I couldn't tell if this was a reference to something real, or whether it was kind of magical property. Likewise, characters have special powers such as being able to inhabit animals, that seemed like pure fantasy to me. Shawl seems to be incorporating African folklore into the supernatural elements of the story, which fit well with what was going on, but to my mind militated against reading this as science fiction.

This is a high concept novel that's worth reading for it's offbeat take on a piece of history that has, as far as I know, been largely ignored in the science fiction world. The closest thing to it that I've read before is Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, in which a slave rebellion in the US connects with European revolutionaries and creates a socialist state in North America called Nova Africa. Shawl delves more deeply into the details than Bisson did, but alas that made it harder for me to understand in my current state of mental incapacity.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 3rd, 2016 09:23 pm (UTC)
I can sympathize with your wanting to read books that your brain can handle better. I've revisited childhood books (Mushroom Planet, anyone?), YA, reruns of Secret Agent Man (Patrick McGoohan FTW), and various sorts of popular/bestseller fiction. I still couldn't read Dan Brown, mind, but yeah, we don't have to read all the complex books all the time.

Me, I'm saving Everfair for later. But soon!
Oct. 3rd, 2016 09:42 pm (UTC)
TV/streaming is pretty good at offering stuff my brain can handle too.
Oct. 3rd, 2016 10:33 pm (UTC)
I'm reading a lot of YA myself right now and Zi haven't even got the excuse of chemo!
Oct. 3rd, 2016 11:43 pm (UTC)
My next door neighbor has really gotten into YA too, partly because her daughter is that age.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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