Although Nisi Shawl has been publishing short-form spec fic and related non-fiction since 1989, 2016’s steampunk novel Everfair is her debut novel.
Confronted with ultimatums from Leopold’s heavily armed Force Publique , King Mwenda’s least bad choice is to buy time with apparent concessions. He and his Queen Josina hope to use this respite to out-think the Europeans while searching for new weapons in the struggle against the invaders.
Enter the idealist colonists of Everfair.
Evangelical African-Americans and socialist Fabians may seem odd allies, but their ideals are similar… even if their philosophical justifications for those ideals differ. Their little plot of land, purchased legally by European standards (that is, from the Europeans who seized it from the original inhabitants), is far enough from Leopold’s centre of operations that it will not attract much attention (at least at first), but close enough to allow that the new settlers can offer refuge to Leopold’s victims.
Either group, native inhabitants or the Evangelicals and their Fabian allies, were they to stand alone against Leopold, would probably be doomed. The natives do not have the technology or the contacts necessary to rouse European disapproval of Leopold’s methods. The Everfairians have technology but not manpower. They could use their contacts in the US and the UK to expose Leopold … but bleeding hearts back in Europe might agitate to transfer the region from Leopold to some other colonial overlord. Which would not be the best outcome.
But … Western technology, imported through Everfair and developed locally, could give the King the edge he needs. Even so, forcing Leopold and the Belgians out of the Congo will be the work of decades. At the end of the long struggle, a troubling question remains: what to do about the Americans and Europeans of Everfair, patronizingly benevolent towards the Africans, but as much invaders as the Belgians?
I don’t care for steampunk. In part it’s because the technological underpinnings often make no sense beyond “for some reason dirigibles and steam power work much better in this world than they did in ours.” In greater part it’s because too many of the steampunk novels I have encountered are imbued with nostalgia for the good old days of pith helmets, baroque beards, and the right of white men to crush everyone else underfoot (the occasional plucky heroine aside).
Shawl’s book is in no sense nostalgic about the race to divvy up Africa … and for good reason:
Leopold II of Belgium’s unbounded greed meant unbounded misery for the Africans unfortunate enough to live in the region of Central Africa. Determined to maximize the Congo region’s rubber production, Leopold’s agents relied on methods that were exceptionally brutal even by lax colonialist standards. The Force Publique were required to account for ammunition expenditure by returning with the amputated hands of those they had killed. Leopold’s greed destroyed a significant proportion of the population of the so-called “Free State”.
Thanks to the events of the novel, Shawl’s Congo avoids a Leopold-level disaster, but enough of the real history remains to make it clear what exactly is at stake for the Africans. I don’t know, and do not particularly want to know, how many of Shawl’s readers will think she is exaggerating for dramatic effect.
Everfair covers thirty years in fewer than four hundred pages. Yet the work has a fairly substantial cast; there are over thirty characters in the dramatis personae list at the front of the book. Because the book covers so much time and so many people, the author does not have the space to focus overlong on most of the characters. IMHO, this book, as strong as it is, is too short. It still demands your consideration.
Everfair is available here.