Reading Nisi Shawl’s only somewhat utopian, post-colonial steampunk fantasy

“I like to have people striving for a utopia and not getting there” -Nisi Shawl, at a PEN/Faulkner literary event

So part of my problem with Everfair, a book I was wildly excited to read, is that I really expected the wrong thing. This is because the description of the book on almost very website looks like this:

“What if the African natives developed steam power ahead of their colonial oppressors? What might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier?”

Shawl’s book does deliver the goods, at least when it comes to technology, and in a way that inverts the usual ideas about who had what power under colonialism. The characters launch military assaults from genius aircanoes, a form of dirigible they invent themselves and power using Bah-Sangah earths, a local fuel. Instead of guns, they face their enemies with “shongos,” weaponized prosthetics. (One of the many brutalities that the Belgian colonizers inflicted on the African people of the Congo was amputations.)

But Shawl isn’t actually interested in critiquing colonialism, in the traditional sense, or if in offering up heroes whom we, the underdogs of history, can unambiguously cheer from the margins. Most of the main characters in this book are not, in fact, African. This is the first and most significant way my expectations of this novel differed from what I actually read.

Instead, the book is narrated by a motley alliance of so-called visionaries who move to the Congo to set up a utopian colony, the titular Everfair. Not only are these folks not African, they’re pretty fucking flawed. The book actually opens in France (jarring enough, considering the premise) on a scene of a White (as far as we know) woman riding a steam-powered bicycle through the countryside. This character, Lisette, is probably the closest this novel comes to having a main character. The next few chapters pass in bewildering succession as we’re introduced to more of the colonists: a Black American missionary and a White Englishman. The Englishman is a member of the utopian Fabian Society (a real socialist society, whose members included India’s Jawaharlal Nehru). He is also a certifiable Sexist Idiot, as evidenced by his tendency to self-importantly mansplain all over the novel. This mismatched crew share a single goal: to create an ideal socialist society, powered by the purity of their ideals and vision. Yep. Already, these people are deeply unsympathetic, and off to a rocky start.

The settlers move to the Congo, name their country Everfair, adopt a Constitution, nominate English as their official language, and set up an early legislature, all without bothering to consult any of the people who live in the Congo already. Like a tailor with a troublesome knot, Shawl spends chapters and chapters teasing out these characters’ various hypocrisies; from the aging White lesbian who doesn’t want her children to marry people of another race to the Christian missionaries who think Bibles are more important than medicines. Utopian experiments are dangerous, because perfect people don’t exist. Unfortunately, the folks in this novel lack that basic kernel of self-awareness.

Unfortunately, their drama just isn’t one I’m personally interested in. If you told me upfront that a group of American evangelicals and a group of White European dudes moved to the Congo to set up a utopia, I would have predicted it would fall apart exactly like this. These characters’ foibles aren’t news enough to me to justify the enormity of plot they take up.

The chapters themselves are brief and skip between the viewpoints of an increasingly enormous array of characters. This means that the few interesting characters who do appear get far too little screentime: for example, Fwendi, a Congolese actress and shapeshifter; or Tink, a Chinese-born forced laborer who finds new life in Everfair as an engineer. Their conflicts sink beneath the surface before we get a chance to actually view them. For example, Fwendi’s inherited shape-shifting and her subsequent love affair with a White man; or Tink’s lost love and his conflicted feelings for Everfair.

I admire Shawl for attempting to represent all the world’s ethnicities in one novel, but it’s a challenge that maybe would have been better left for a trilogy. Partway through the book, one of characters runs into an Indian couple who run…wait for it…a spice shop. I MEAN SERIOUSLY. Kudos to Shawl for unearthing the fact that some Indians refer to the subcontinent as Bharat, but this felt like yet another cliché riff about Indian food. Kthxbye.

About 70% of the way through the novel, the story finally makes room for King Mwende, a local ruler. He abolishes Everfair’s council and airs a long list of very justifiable grievances, starting with the fact that the Everfair-eans purchased the land for their colony from King Leopold, who never had the right to sell it in the first place. Of course by this point, the history of Everfair, its land and its colonists are intertwined: many of the colonists have been in Everfair for years. They’ve married people of other racial backgrounds, romances that won’t be accepted in their nations of origin. They’ve invented technology, set up hospitals, and fought on behalf of the nation. Where have we come across this problem before? Unfortunately, none of this is really King Mwende’s problem to solve.

There is so much about this book that I could have loved. The premise, the setting, the few genuinely fascinating characters, the technology, the diversity. But it just feels like Shawl is trying to do too much. This novel’s soaring ambition becomes its downfall, in a way. I wish Shawl’d chosen just one or two of these characters (NOT the White ones), and developed their relationships and conflicts more thoroughly, even if that had meant focusing extensively on their flaws.

Despite these challenges, Everfair stands out as a truly original work, one that turns ideas of steampunk and fantasy on their heads. The steampunk genre — about which, to be fair, I knew pretty much nothing coming in— is too often rooted in a bland nostalgia for Victoriana, ignoring that era’s brutality. Everfair does not flinch from those brutalities, even while demonstrating that trauma can be a source of strength. Which is why, despite its challenges, Everfair absolutely deserves its place in the canon, and why I’m excited to read more of Shawl’s work in the future.