You’re either the kind of reader who digs books that have maps and family trees in the first few pages, or you’re not. Some readers — and for the sake of full disclosure, this is where my loyalties lie — tend to barrel through books all sharklike, never turning back or stopping. Others prefer to take their time; these are the people who love the luxury of flipping back and forth, consulting the character lists in the front of the book and thumbing over to the glossary in the back as needed.
Sci-fi author and Seattle Times book critic Nisi Shawl’s first novel Everfair has a historical map of its titular fictional African nation in the front, alongside a list of “Some Notable Characters.” Shawl practically insists that readers take their time with the story of Everfair. This is a novel that turned me, at least temporarily, into one of those slow and circuitous readers; not only did I keep a thumb permanently parked in the character list for easy reference but I also found myself reading the book with my phone in my hand, Googling historical context and researching Shawl’s influences on multiple occasions per chapter.
Everfair is a novel that is profoundly interested in justice, and Shawl is struggling to change the course of not one but two seemingly unstoppable rivers. Not only is Everfair an alternative history that attempts to address (and in some small way redress) the genocidal actions of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo at the dawn of the 20th century, but Shawl is also wrestling with the tendency toward colonialism inherent in the science fiction subgenre called steampunk.
It’s okay if you don’t know either the history of the Belgian Congo or the traditions of steampunk; Everfair will teach you as you read. The book skips along thirty years of history encompassing the end of the Victorian age and the churning chaos surrounding World War I, following a large cast (and with chapters from nearly a dozen different perspectives) through the creation and birthing pains of the nation of Everfair, which is constructed from an uneasy alliance of African-Americans, Congolese, East Asians, and British members of the socialist Fabian Society. Though it’s steeped in what must have been years of research into the geopolitical context of the time, Everfair is not a realistic novel. People get around via blimps called “aircanoes,” some characters appear to have psychic powers, and technology rapidly diverges from the familiar Industrial Age inventions of our timeline.
If this all sounds incredibly ambitious, that’s because it is. I could easily imagine Everfair taking up the same shelf-space as Neal Stephenson’s sprawling Baroque Cycle. But rather than indulging the bloat that has tripped up the sci-fi genre of late, Shawl has trimmed an epic that could span multiple volumes into less than 400 pages. And that economy comes at a price: aside from the ostensible protagonist, a woman named Lisette Toutournier who is loosely based on the French novelist Colette, many of the other characters lack complexity. Chapters leap ahead by days, months, and even years in a skipping-stone narrative structure that necessarily omits many motivations and actions from the story.
But given a choice between a small book crammed full of too much ambition or a gigantic book that indulges in unnecessary world-building, I’d always choose the former. And no critic would ever be able to accuse Shawl of leaving something out of Everfair due to a lack of thoughtfulness; the depth of care and consideration that she has put into this world cannot be overpraised.
Too, the amount of life in this book is overwhelming. The characters are horny and brainy. They fall in love; they settle for less romance than they deserve. They make capricious choices; they are selfless and brave. Everfair is not dystopian by nature — it’s a book about a daring few people trying to save as many lives as possible from the brutal industrial churn of colonialism, which means it is built on hope. But it isn’t a utopian novel, either. Shawl understands that governments, like stories, are engines that run on conflict, so while characters in the book are idealistic, the story forces them to measure their idealism up against circumstances beyond their control.
Alternative histories have taken root in fiction over the last decade or so. From Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, novelists are using fiction to explore roads not taken and to vindicate those who could not write the history books for themselves. With Everfair, Shawl is melding the alternative history with the imaginative vigor of science fiction. In that way, she’s doing more than dwelling in the choices of the past. She’s promoting her ideas — of tolerance, of revolution, of freedom — and she’s telling us something that we desperately need to hear: if we are unhappy with the choices we are making right now, it is within our power to build a better world.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant