by Cadwell Turnbull
Everfair is a rich mosaic narrative about a revolutionary nation created in resistance to King Leopold II’s brutal colonization of the Congo Free State. How a nation of Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans rose to fight against the machinations of empire is absolutely the sort of story that needs telling. The fact that this nation never existed is a minor detail in comparison.
Speculative fiction is full of stories that are a warning to us of future calamities vividly rendered to appeal to our good sense. Speculative fiction can also be a message of hope, offering a future that is a better alternative to where we might be headed.
Historical fiction is another genre entirely, with its own aims, one of which being our desire to visit the past, even an imagined version of the past. We’d like to see how people lived before us, and, if possible, we want to share in their joys and tragedies. In this viewing of the past, we assume history is already written, and the purpose of the fiction is to get as close to that already written past as possible—with some light flourishes of fantasy, of course. By this rule, the future becomes the place of infinite potential, the past stuck in sap.
But is it enough to render the world accurately when so much of our history, particularly the history of the marginalized, has been written in blood? Is it enough to trap atrocity in amber? Justice is typically a thing for the present. But what of the millions of victims now dead, the perpetrators also dead and beyond accountability? How can we right those wrongs? There’s a tyranny to history as it happened: the past justifies itself; it calcifies dominant worldviews as inherent; and it perpetuates those assumptions into the future where they must be argued against inch by inch. Because history happened just so, many believe in the inevitability of empire.
Alternate history, as a subgenre of speculative fiction, provides another route between the speculative and the historical. Some alternate histories show a darker present. These stories are centered around a single moment where the coin landed on the other side. What if the Axis Powers won World War II or the South won the Civil War? You can imagine where these stories might be headed. We are drawn to exploring the crises we’ve narrowly averted.
But the subgenre can be interventionist as well. The what-ifs can be hopeful. Add an airship powered by steam and subtle magics to a Congo brutalized by a foreign king. Upend the technological and sociological rules of that time and place. Loosen the chokehold of history. With a little intervention, a different past becomes possible, and, as such, a different present, a different future.
Nisi Shawl has made their career using speculative fiction to explore power and marginalization. In Everfair, they aim their immense capabilities towards an alternative past filled with hope. Using the trappings of steampunk and alternate history, Shawl unseats our easy assumptions and usurps the hegemony of the way things happened. The value of this radical remixing is in imagining humanity making other choices that lead to better outcomes. Shawl doesn’t indulge in a too-easy shift either. Bigotry exists in Everfair just as it does elsewhere. The politics of their imagined nation are messy. But that too extends the Overton window. Even with human imperfection considered, something beautiful can bloom.
The thematic concerns of Shawl’s narrative are enough to make Everfair worthy of the highest praise. But reading Shawl’s prose is an experience in itself. Every word is purposefully chosen, every sentence in its right place. The experience of such seemingly effortless poetry and immaculate prose is both a delight and challenge. Reading Everfair is like being submerged under water that paradoxically gives you breath, awash in the humanity of each character and the sharply drawn world, all gorgeously rendered in painstaking detail. The brilliance soaks through every page.
There is a magic to seeing characters inhabit a place and a greater magic in experiencing a place with its own character. A nation is its people, but a nation can never be represented by one person or even one group. Everfair is a tapestry of many voices in a place unlike anything you’ve ever seen. That Shawl manages to keep all these people distinct, make the place and the people matter so much, is a testament to their staggering talents. Shawl approaches each perspective with a tender clarity, and, in so doing, makes their nation real in all its flaws and promise.
A story cannot do all the work required to give dignity to the lost. A good story, however, told tenderly and with deep humanity, can recontextualize tragedy, even if the tragedy can’t be undone. What do we gain when we see the marginalized take up arms? What do we accomplish in remaking the world so that they may do so? Everything.
Everfair is a visitation, a bearing of witness, a ship across the void of our failed imaginations. Reading it, I felt myself stepping onto new ground on a new world. You will too. Don’t shy away. Feel the crush of gravity. Feel the press on your shoulders, the way your feet sink into the earth. That is the weight of a history never told. And just as true as our own.
Copyright © 2016 by Nisi Shawl
Introduction copyright © 2023 by Cadwell Turnbull