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Book Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Friday, October 21, 2016 - 09:12

This is an intricate, sprawling (if that isn’t self-contradiction) alternate history of how key aspects of African politics might have evolved differently in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, given the right nudges. One might call it “steampunk” it one also pointed out the ways in which it critiques the oft-unexamined colonialism in that genre and makes the point that technology and gadgets do not change essential human nature and human relations.

The basic story is that British Fabian socialists raise the money to buy a chunk of the Belgian Congo to try to set up a political and social utopia, as well as a foothold for undermining what they (rightly) see as the exploitive hellscape King Leopold has created. This planned utopia, christened Everfair by its British founders, rapidly becomes central to a broad struggle that eventually wins against Belgium and shifts the balance of power in Africa against colonialism. This is made possible, in part, by the introduction of several of the darlings of steampunk: dirigibles, creative use of small-scale steam power, mechanical prostheses. But these are assisted by a few less standard elements, such as what is clearly meant to be some sort of small-scale nuclear power, the assistance of a reluctant god-ridden warrior, and spying talents enabled by spirit transfer to animal bodies.

The worldbuilding is ambitious and stunning, as well as being refreshing. I felt that certain aspects of plot and characterization were weaker. There’s a very wide array of viewpoint characters, some of whom had so little page time I still have no idea what their internal motivations were. One of the strong points of characterization was the unflinching look at how racism touched every interaction, and how difficult it is to step outside of the attitudes and assumptions one is raised in. The European and American residents of Everfair struggle to get past a literal “white savior” approach and to accept when they are no longer welcome to steer the land they’ve made home.

The plot…was as diffuse, rambling, and slow-moving as a history book. (It reminded me of some of the aspects I struggled with in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.) I never really felt the shape of what it way trying to do. Characters moved from one event to the next through time…and then the book ended. And even when it ended, it trailed off for several chapters of “what are they doing now?” sort of like an engine dieseling down to a coughing finish. The book gets my bonus point for normalized romantic/sexual relationships between women (in a solidly historically grounded way--look up the "free love" movement), but not my bonus point for “kept me on the treadmill past my exercise target. I struggled a bit to keep going to the finish.

This is an ambitious book and achieved some of those ambitions very well, but for me it fell short of "blowing my mind".