Sometimes when an author combines a couple of genres, the result can be kind of a mess, not quite right for either genre (I would put Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in that category), but sometimes the intersection between two genres will illuminate its subject in a way that a single genre book wouldn’t. In this category is Everfair, by Nisi Shawl, which takes a look at the 19th century development of the Congo by King Leopold II. The book is a steampunk alternate history, and wholly fascinating.
If the reference to the Congo and King Leopold rings a dim bell for you, it may be because you read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or because you read or heard about the book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (which, by the way, we have in the Field Library, and which won two historical writing prizes when it first came out). Briefly, in real life the exploitation and conquest of the Congo between 1885 and 1908 was a horrifying series of atrocities as a result of which approximately half the preexisting population of the country was killed.
Nisi Shawl takes this deeply shameful and atrocious history and asks a “what if” question (the heart of all good speculative fiction, in my opinion): what if the natives of the Congo weren’t as technologically limited as compared to the Europeans of the time? What if, to be more specific, they had acquired or developed steam technology by the time the Belgians came to exploit the country? Just the thought of that is enough to make me want to read the book and hope for a happier ending than the human rights horror the actual exploitation of the Congo turned out to be.
The premise is that a group of British Fabians (socialists of a sort) join forces with a group of African American missionaries to purchase land in the Congo from King Leopold, which they call Everfair and use as a sanctuary for native people and also for former slaves returning from the American South and any Africans who were being mistreated. Surrounded by the forces creating the hell of the Belgian Congo, the people of Everfair have a terrific fight on their hands just to survive, let alone thrive, but they’re determined to govern themselves, invent new technology, and make a world for themselves that’s worth living in. The book is told from a multiplicity of voices, including many historically silenced: Africans as well as Europeans, East Asians and African Americans, all living in complex relationships with each other and with the forces of history.
Both a way of understanding what actually happened in the Congo and a way of imagining how it could have gone differently, Everfair is a book to savor.