HOW DO YOU make a better world? And what will it cost?

Nisi Shawl’s historical fantasy Everfair (2016) starts with a simple but bold image: that of a Frenchwoman passionately in love with her bicycle. Lisette Toutournier spins through the Gallic countryside atop the vehicle, facing her future, enchanted by the freeing and somewhat illicit possibilities of this technology. Her life will be fueled by a perpetual curiosity to know how machines work — by a fierce wonder at science’s stimulating gifts — and this curiosity will rocket her across the globe to Africa, Europe, and the United States as one the founders of a new Central African nation called Everfair at the turn of the 20th century. Together, her colleagues plan a nation where such things as slavery, class exploitation, gender oppression, and colonialism will vanish.

None of the co-founders of Everfair, however, are quite prepared for the way collaboration and the challenges of building and sustaining a community will alter the trajectories of their dreams. The members of this eager coalition, the ruling Grand Mote of the new country, purchase land from the so-called Congo Free State, determined to make a better world. However, they carry with them their own prejudices and passions, and they frequently stumble over their own limitations and wrestle with the eccentricities of their fellows. They all struggle to learn what it takes for an ideal to survive politics, illness, compromise, and war. In this portrayal, Shawl invites readers to explore the challenges of world-building, both in the speculative sense of creating an alternate history and in the political sense of organizing a diverse and functioning society.

The alternate timeline in which Shawl embeds her particular utopia plays off the real history of pan-Africanism and independence movements that grew in the wake of the New Imperialism from the last decades of the 1800s up to World War I and the start of the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, African nations struggled to retain their sovereignty amid the European partition of the African continent, while returnees and descendants of overseas (i.e., forced-migrant) African diasporas experimented with fresh forms of nationalism and government, evidenced in countries founded by former slaves such as Liberia.

Shawl is nothing if not ambitious in her multinational cast, including unconventional women and men, LGBT characters, people of color, and differently-abled folk. This vision is a purposefully radical one, even within a steampunk subgenre that already explores alternate ways the past could have been during that “modernizing,” empire-building period of the 20th century. Shawl’s heroes challenge assumptions regarding who could have created the coming century’s new world(s). For instance, Lisette descends from African immigrants in France who intermarried with, and “passed” for, Caucasians. She tends to love women more than men (though she enjoys many varieties of sexual experience). She also works for the Fabian Socialists of the United Kingdom, a group of mostly white intellectuals and workers who loathe their nation’s labor exploitation of the poor. Additionally, readers meet Fwendi, another spirited female hero, whose childhood has been horrifically marred by the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium, the story’s central villain. During his real-life rule, Leopold tortured and decimated indigenous African populations in service of the brutal rubber trade, robbing young Congolese children like Fwendi of both limbs and family. The group is eventually aided by “Tink” (Ho Lin-Huang), a Chinese man who escapes the East Asian labor camps operated by Leopold’s business allies to join Everfair’s founding leaders, becoming the nation’s lead scientist and industrial designer. A genius of engineering innovation, he creates not only an armory of detachable, multi-function metal arms for the disabled survivors of Leopold’s inhumane reign, but also flying canoes which evolve into the Everfair’s anticolonial force of airships.

The other founders of Everfair include several Western characters: Sir Matthew Jamison, a Scottish playwright enamored with Fwendi, who lends his creative skills to this national-liberation project; English poet Daisy Albin, Lisette’s lover and the “mother” of their new country, an escapee from an unhappy, polyamorous marriage to a fellow socialist; and black Christian anti-slavery advocates from the United States, including the Reverend Lt. Thomas Jefferson Wilson (a master sermonizer and Civil War veteran) and Martha Livia Hunter (who yearns to “save” the souls of native African survivors of Leopold’s cruel regime). Lastly but significantly, there’s the conscientious King Mwenda, whose stolen ancestral lands Leopold has sold to this odd coalition of atheistic Euro-socialists and US Christians so that they can form Everfair. Indigenous ruler Mwenda continually defends those lands, even becoming a member of the Grand Mote of Everfair. By deploying the spiritual, political, and martial tactics of his forebears, including long-term guerilla warfare designed to ward off and outsmart would-be colonizers, Mwenda feeds a growing demand for representations of agency from peoples too long portrayed only as the victimized.

Readers who enjoy greater diversity in fantasy and science fiction stories will stand up and cheer for this core vision of rarely seen marginalized people in alliance, especially as it exuberantly entwines tense situations of technological and geopolitical change. Yet, despite the heartfelt utopian intention of this alliance, Shawl does not ignore how each member is still a product of the times. Daisy, for instance, views the evangelizing Martha and her black Christian allies with the subtle condescension of an esteemed British intellectual whose “superior” judgments are flavored with the old-school (albeit politely hidden) Anglo-Saxon racism many of the white socialists hold. Daisy also supports the founders’ strategy of finding (or supplying) a “white martyr” of Leopold’s African violence to play within UK newspapers and rally middle-class Caucasian readers to the Fabians’ cause. Yet the aftermath, when their martyr ends up being someone close to the feminist poet, confirms Shawl’s refusal to paint any character monochromatically.

Sure to resonate among activist readers of the Black Lives Matter and #AskHerMore era who know that the essence of justice is praxis, not just precept, Everfair (as both a nation and a novel) represents a country that upholds principles of equality and humanism through direct protest and political action. Shawl envisions resistance and empowerment among this global alliance of characters from different communities of oppressed peoples seeking justice. As she extends the story’s narrative arcs as far as historical agency might allow, Shawl’s Everfair fulfills the promise of utopian SF, especially 20th-century genealogies of socialist-anarchistic and feminist-LGBT storytelling. Stretching back from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Samuel R. Delany’s Triton during the 1960s New Wave to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915, these visions forced readers to reflect on the sheer labor required to build a perfect world. By juggling the diverse social perspectives and cultural struggles of Everfair’s co-founders, ensnared in the sometimes romantic, sometimes minute and awkward, sometimes thrilling or violent work of building a society from scratch, Shawl entices readers to reflect on how changing the viewpoints and behaviors of such people in history, even slightly, might have altered the present-day fate of humankind.

Readers familiar with Shawl’s deceptively light touch from her earlier short fiction collection, Filter House (2008), which won the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award for imaginative transformations in gender roles, will not be surprised at the techniques the seasoned teacher of speculative fiction brings to Everfair. These narrative tricks neither preach nor judge the novel’s extensive dramatis personae, but rather meticulously depict each character’s thoughts and (re)actions in relatable ways. After all, Shawl is the co-author, along with Cynthia Ward, of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (2005), literally the handbook on creating complex, believable characters outside of an author’s cultural experience: the go-to guide for members of the North American creative community of SF writers who care about diversity. She proves herself a master of characters’ interior voices, deftly shifting points of view from female to male, from Protestant to atheist to pagan, and from African to American to European to Asian in richly layered chapters, filamented with social perceptions and fine cultural nuances. In short, her story is a layered mosaic of vignettes told from multiple perspectives.

Shawl’s strategy allows readers to experience firsthand the tenuous alliances for social justice that lay the new country’s foundation as well as the emotional and social labor required. The narrative’s jumps in setting, time, and viewpoint might recall the similar multi-protagonist, time-and-place-leaping, interpersonal heroics of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. However, Shawl’s novel also possesses proto-SF DNA from Jules Verne’s anti-imperialist, anti-hero Captain Nemo, such as when King Mwenda swoops out of the skies to liberate his people from Leopold’s horrific torture camps, carrying them off to freedom in Tink’s glorious air canoes. It draws as well as from the liberational (bicycle-and-dirigible) technology-centered The War in the Air by H. G. Wells, who, like Daisy and other British characters in Everfair, was himself a Fabian Socialist, a hopeful student of utopian possibility and practice.

It is unclear what the global future of Shawl’s timeline will unveil, as the narrative remains focused on the surprisingly small world of Everfair’s inner circle, its Grand Mote government. In our universe, the introduction of two kinds of industrial technology changed the nature of warfare during the Great War and kicked off the turbulent century to come: air power and chemical weapons (used alongside other mass weapons in trench warfare). In Shawl’s book, Everfair’s indigenous-scientific war technology is guarded and used in such a way that there is minimal risk of it being stolen or disseminated to mercenary forces from Europe and the United States. In this era of new warfare, the potential for horror, for dystopic haunting, is high. The constant threat of colonial massacre by Leopold remains in the first half of the book, gradually giving way to the larger danger of global warfare in the second half. International alliances and rising tensions begin to parallel and emphasize the existing, un-ignorable divisions and prejudices between Everfair’s various founders and factions.

On the other hand, the deeper into the novel the reader goes, the clearer it becomes that war’s tangled place in nation-making is still not the core of the story. As contemporary readers cringe at the heroes’ dashed hopes and betrayals from often hidden expectations of class and race, they realize that these are the true stakes of Shawl’s tale. Everfair is a country of personal goals, a universe hinged on relationships as important as they are fragile. Its success or continuation will always rest on when, if, or how soon these utopian founders understand their missteps with lovers, families, and allies, and even on whether they can recognize each other as such.

By framing Everfair as steampunk, Shawl adds a potent political and artistic entry to an increasingly trendy, visually and technologically fetishizable subgenre. Originally popularized by novels like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), steampunk has since been embraced by a new generation of millennial readers in young adult SF (such as Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy) and expanded onto platforms as diverse as reality TV shows (for example, GSN’s 2015 series Steampunk’d, hosted by makeover maven Jeannie Mai) and statement fashion pieces (including Beyoncé’s titanium “gling,” designed by Lorraine Schwartz for the iconic “Single Ladies” video in 2008).

As the steampunk subgenre and aesthetic has swept across various media, two distinct trends have emerged defining its works: those centering on the fantastical and those foregrounding the historical. The fantastical mode, the “fun” one, is highlighted by the pull toward the counterfactual or never-was, allowing audiences to play with barely possible but unlikely techno-gadgetry; with materializations of pseudo-scientific beliefs widely subscribed to in the New Imperial era; and with fantasy countries and kingdoms that have no maps and no boundaries within existing textbooks. Readers might speculate what could have happened if pop-cultural, fictional figures, beloved in the Victorian or Edwardian periods, had crossed paths to conjoin in adventures, sharing villains or objects from their diverse story worlds (e.g., the graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a multiverse-based technique that fans of Philip José Farmer might call a “Wold Newton family” narrative approach. Or they can imagine alternative uses of real or fantastical technologies associated with those times (for instance, revivification and/or reanimation pseudosciences in James Blaylock’s Narbondo novels).

The historical mode, the “grounded” one, engages with the strange but true tidbits found in obscure research and offhand stories from more famous biographical and autobiographical accounts and news events, often blending these with fantastical motifs and plots (a prototypical example being Tim Powers’s pairing of real-life pirates, poets, inventors, conquistadors, and other lone-rebel types with magical situations, secret histories, and backstories).

Too often, readers assume that steampunk fiction creates either “fun” or “serious” stories, “frivolous” or “grounded” ones. Both approaches, but especially the “fun” one, have come under increasing critique as postcolonial, indigenous, and diasporic communities question if practices like the transatlantic slave trade, systematic genocide, and environmental exploitation should be overlooked in the name of “neat” touches like steam technology, pocket watch fobs, and top hats.

Associated with progressive literary movements within speculative fiction, such as Afrofuturism and feminist SF, Shawl joins international and postcolonial science fiction writers and North American authors of color, including the short-story writers of Steamfunk! (2013, edited by Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade), Steampunk World (2014, edited by Sarah Hans, where Shawl published an earlier short-story version of the novel), and The Sea is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia (2015, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng). Together, they work, in the words of Diana Pho, toward “going global,” “re-engineering” steampunk to foster inclusion and diversity, mining its deep potential for formal and thematic range.

Everfair initially appears to belong to the camp of “grounded” and “serious” steampunk, complete with author notes, maps, and chapter headings to guide readers carefully through its historical context and conflicts. This is steampunk as historical fiction, with the slow build and large cast list of a deep, sustained read. The immediate subject matter also invokes postcolonial sensibilities, encouraging a global sociopolitical critique of the ways that even now “cheap” goods in one nation translate into costly human conditions in another. The Reverend Lt. Wilson, for example, speaks to a crowd of Irish industrial laborers and British middle-class intellectuals, reminding them that the rubber within their convenient consumer goods comes from poor Africans enslaved by Leopold partway across the globe.

On the other hand, despite these high stakes, Shawl delights in a flair and passion for extrapolated and imaginary science that is definitely “fun” steampunk, offering plenty of joy: in the exploration of gadgets (steam-powered bicycles, bulletproof vests, and other inventions made earlier than their real-life counterparts in our world), in the freedoms afforded minority characters from colonialism and/or slavery for artistic and scientific pursuits, and in the playful palette of creative ways in which Shawl paints this never-was world.

Both female and male protagonists freely enjoy international fashion, foodways, song and poetry, among other cultural practices. More than one character seeks solace in the pleasure and effort of literary creation. Everfair is nothing if not a place that values artists, and its national poet and playwright use their works to effect more than cosmetic change. Here readers can witness the balance between art and necessity.

In the opening scene, Lisette savors the daring freedom of her new bicycle and revels in the wider horizons afforded by this mechanical development. Contemporary genre readers expect the ensuing action, the explosions, twists, and intrigue that will transform her sense of self. However, what neither young woman nor readers anticipate is the fact that her longed-for wider horizons, her adventures, will really be other people. For good or ill, the country of Everfair is a product of many hands, and the people who come to be her citizens will be the product of many hands as well. With this debut novel, Nisi Shawl invites us all to remember that history and its technologies, fantastical or otherwise, as well as the futures they seed, are the result of many imaginations, working together and apart. She reminds us that the things we build, airships and nations, weapons and families, cannot happen in isolation. Most importantly, she reminds us that acting on utopian hopes that open such connections at all is already an irrevocable transformation.

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Lynette James is a scholar, author, and educator focusing on the intersections of representation, critical theory, and genre-writing pedagogy. She is a graduate of the USM Stonecoast MFA Creative Writing program.

Ida Yoshinaga is a PhD student researching fantastic-genre teleplay writing, alternative transmedia, and indigenous narrative in the Creative Writing Program of the University of Hawai’i Department of English.