It would be interesting to compare Nisi Shawl’s alt-historical novel Everfair with the Broadway musical Hamilton. It’s not a comparison I’m going to go into in great detail here, because I only just thought of it, but: both works are trying to make space in history, and in narratives of nation-building, for people of colour. Two interesting things come out of this comparison: firstly, that Everfair does this less problematically and more honestly than Hamilton does; secondly, I still like Hamilton a whole lot more than I like Everfair. (Given how much I like Hamilton, this isn’t actually as much of an insult as it sounds.)
So. Everfair is a “what-if” novel, set against the horrific backdrop of the Belgian King Leopold II’s exploitation of the Congo Free State in the late 1800s and early 1900s – a period of perhaps twenty years during which, historians estimate, up to ten million people died as a result of Leopold’s insatiable greed for rubber.
Shawl asks: what if a group of British socialists had got together with a group of African-American missionaries to buy a parcel of land in the Congo and set up a new country there – the eponymous Everfair – a haven for refugees from Leopold’s atrocities?
The resulting novel is a series of short chapters told from the points of view of eleven different characters, ranging from the white middle-class English housewife Daisy Albin – who also happens to be Everfair’s national poet – and her mixed-race female lover Lisette, through the African-American Christian missionary Thomas Jefferson Wilson, who gradually becomes assimilated into the local religion, to King Mwenda, ruler of the territory bought by the European founders of Everfair, who enters into an uneasy alliance with them. Each chapter jumps forward in time, by as little as a week or as much as a year. So we are given a series of short vignettes, almost, that together build a picture of the founding of Everfair, from early in Leopold’s reign of terror to the end of the First World War.
It’s exactly this multiplicity of voices, this fragmentation, that makes Everfair, and Everfair, what it is. The Europeans and their African-American allies see a potential utopia in Everfair; but those eleven points of view show us exactly how much of a contested issue utopia is. The missionaries want to spend charitable donations on Bibles and religious material to convert the local people and the refugees. The socialists, broadly speaking, abhor religion, and want to build Everfair along modern socialist lines. King Mwenda wants his traditions to be respected, and for the settlers to remember that Everfair was originally his land, sold out from under him by the Belgian government.
And so on. All of these people are playing politics with each other; all of them have broadly the same goal – a peaceful life under a fair government – even if they have widely differing interests and worldviews. (One of the most interesting things about Everfair is how it treats science and magic – as exactly that, different worldviews, equally valid. The airships that feature so prominently in the economic development of Everfair are built by science; the heaters that keep them aloft run on magic and traditional belief. Doctors in Everfair’s hospitals use modern medicines to keep patients alive; King Mwenda and Thomas Jefferson Wilson are both told things by their gods and ancestors that they could not possibly know rationally.) The novel takes no sides: each character’s point of view is valid. And so we see how messy the work of nation-building is, how ideologically fraught it is from the start, a tangle of compromises and conflicts that means nobody quite gets what they want, but everyone gets as good a result as they can. Everfair is a novel about people working together, productively if not always harmoniously, to build a society that includes everyone. It’s not utopia. It’s not perfect (because the world is not perfect). There are crises and there are moral compromises. But we get the sense that, mostly, it’s the best anyone can do.
Why don’t I like it more, then?
Partly, I think it’s a case of mismatched expectations. The novel calls itself steampunk; from the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book:
The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternative history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences: clockwork Victorian-era computers, commercial transcontinental dirigible lines, and a host of other wonders. This is that kind of book.
See, I think this gets steampunk wrong. For me, a vital part of steampunk is a transgressive sense of playfulness; it knows, fundamentally, that no Victorian was ever a steampunk, that it is impossible except in modernity. It is constantly winking at its audience to let them know that its ahistoricity is deliberate, and fun, and a little bit ridiculous. That’s not to say that steampunk can’t do serious things; just that what it’s doing usually has little to do with history. Steampunk, at heart, is playing meta games with its audience.
Whereas Everfair is anything but playful. I read it fast, travelling home by train after Christmas, and it resisted me every step of the way. It’s a novel that demands to be taken seriously, to be read slowly and with great attention to detail. Look at that “Historical Note”; the three-page list of “Some Notable Characters” at the beginning of the novel (only some); the detailed, serious-looking map, not at all like a fantasy map. From the “Historical Note” again:
Of course steampunk is a form of fiction, a fantasy, and the events within these pages never happened. But they could have.
As I’ve said above, the function of steampunk is precisely not to say “this could have happened”. That’s the function of alt-history. Everfair is really alt-history. Its project is to create a space in Western historical fiction for people of colour as participants in nation-building. Its project is to bring an under-studied and terrible interlude in recent European history to the attention of readers who at best only know it through reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at university once – and to do so in a way that casts people of colour as more than victims.
To be clear: this is important work, and I think it’s work that Everfair does very well – I don’t want to diminish that. I also think that the novel is basically all worldbuilding, in M. John Harrison’s sense: despite its multivocalism, it’s not a novel that leaves much space for interpretation or exploration (although, I suspect, every reader will empathise with different characters – I spent a lot of time rooting for Lisette and willing Daisy to realise how racist she was being). As a reader, I prefer baggier, more playful novels; steampunk novels, not alt-history ones. But that’s on me, not the book.