Book Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

26 May

Approximately nine years ago, while browsing a local library’s new release section, I came across Filter House. A short story collection by Nisi Shawl, its description and critical blurbs promised rich literary fantasy from a talented and distinctive voice that was new to me. Reading it, I realized that promise was no exaggeration. Filter House is significant in both its quality and its revelation of a culturally non-dominant perspective (particularly within the SFF community). Nominated for a World Fantasy Award and winning the James Tiptree Jr. Award, Shawl’s collection did not go unnoticed within the critical community.

Yet, I somehow felt unfulfilled after completing the collection. I had no regrets reading it; I appreciated it. But it still baffled me in its unfamiliarity and its thematic focus. Its Otherness required contemplation, attentive to the subtle graces of Shawl’s writing and listening to her viewpoint. For me, one read-through wasn’t sufficient to fully experience it. Other critics had similar reactions to Filter House, such as Matthew Cheney, who wrote what was perhaps a premature and unduly negative review for Strange Horizons. After more time to process and consider the collection, Cheney expressed regrets on his review, for example as in his follow-up blog post titled “How to be Proved Wrong”.

The power of Shawl’s writing doesn’t place emphasis on entertainment, relying on a captivating plot or characters to provide it purpose. The power instead places emphasis on subversion, relaying Shawl’s passionate desire to communicate the Other to a speculative fiction audience, to convey “experiences [that are] usually below the mainstream’s radar”, as L. Timmel Duchamp put it. Given Shawl’s interest in giving people the perspectives and skills to “Write the Other” or “Review the Other”, this type of approach and focus to her art is expected, and dearly needed. That focus, however, may come at the expense of neglecting elements of fiction an audience desires, particularly the mainstream. As a result, mainstream readers may not at first be fully receptive or appreciative of Shawl’s work. This is a shame, because while it may not always be the emphasis, her stories and characters are compelling and entertaining.

Impressed and intrigued with her voice and eager to see how it developed, I was thrilled to hear of the debut publication of a novel by Shawl: Everfair. I had intended to review it here much earlier, upon its release. But like with Filter House, Everfair needed some time to ruminate in my brain before setting thoughts down. In the meantime, more professional critics than I have sung its praises, from Amal El-Mohtar for NPR to the L.A. Review of Books. The novel has also captured award notice, including a Nebula nomination and inclusion in the Tiptree Literary Honor list and as a 2017 Locus Award finalist.

An alternate history with elements of steampunk, Everfair relates the development of a utopian community within colonial Belgian Congo. Founded by cooperation between Fabian Socialists from Great Britian and African-American missionaries, Everfair represents a safe haven for native populations from occupation under the distant King Leopold II, as well as refuge for escaped slaves from throughout the world. Everfair’s history unfolds through vignettes from a multitude of diverse voices, across a period of decades. Through this Shawl explores a very real, tragic history that is often neglected or forgotten, a particularly cruel chapter of the colonialism sin that includes horrific abuses of human rights. With a lens of alternate history that bends the path of events with steampunk technology, Shawl speculates on the possibilities surrounding this setting, were some voices not silenced.

According to Shawl the novel was born from a “dare” stemming from conversations about her personal dislike of steampunk: a particular dislike for its imperialistic fascinations. She imagined Everfair as a work that would “interrogate” rather than “revel” in Victorianism. I’ve never been partial to steampunk either; I’ve never understood the fascination with the era or technology. In Everfair, however, Shawl utilizes steampunk as a tool, not for celebration of technological wonder, but as a means for addressing colonialism and the human imperfections that complicate coexistence: the individual personalities that impede cooperative community.

And oh, does Everfair certainly have its diversity of individuals. With approximately a dozen point of view characters, Shawl’s novel is not just ambitious in its theme, but also in its construction around such a multitude of perspectives. Despite any flaws in the novel, Shawl does astoundingly accomplish making each of these voices unique and realistic, and not make a novel that succumbs to authorial agenda. There is a certain amount of idealism in the characters (they are in a utopian community after all). Yet, Shawl maintains a balance between their aspirations and their decisions. They make mistakes, and even their noble purposes can result in conflict. It is fascinating to see just how well Shawl has this multitude of characters interact, at times succumbing to their European, African, American, or Asian standpoints, but also transcending (at times sacrificially) those differences for the development of Everfair.

The feel of Everfair the novel closely parallels that development of Everfair the utopic community: namely being a product of multiple individual stories that can’t always easily translate united into a coherent whole. The novel is not any one character’s story. It isn’t even the story of a small set of characters. The protagonist is Everfair itself, and thus I don’t know as Shawl’s novel would work better in any way other than with its ambitious, multi-point-of-view structure. Everfair only exists within the context of the multitude of individuals who founded, and live within, it. Their individual lives, with their conflicts and their cooperation, and their relationships to the outside world combine together to write Everfair’s future.

Framing the structure of Everfair across such a sprawl of time and people compliments Everfair as protagonist, but it also leads to reader difficulties. Looking at any individual chapters or sections of Everfair, one can only be captivated by the setting, characters, and prose. But within the larger picture those individual pieces of beauty become rather muddled, without uninterrupted reading or frequent references back to previously read passages. Just as the idealism of community Everfair become disturbed by war and individual vagaries, so does the clarity of novel Everfair become lessened when regarding its characters and plots within the context of the whole.

Despite having some problems, Shawl’s debut novel is certainly a noteworthy success that I’d encourage many to read. Beyond its intriguing premise and realistic portrayal of racial (and national) diversity, it also breaks ground in another important area that should be mentioned: that of age. It is particularly rare that older women are given prominence in speculative or fantastic fiction, save for portrayals that tend to the stereotypical. The recent film Mad Max: Fury Road gained attention and praise for subverting this, and Everfair does that subversion one better, including middle aged, and older, women as primary point-of-view characters. The skill and care with which Shawl does this is in large part due to her own personal realizations as an older woman who came relatively late to writing:

“…The future is where we old women live: we’re time travelers who more than once have witnessed our world unravel and respin itself. We have the emotional dissonance, the cognitive estrangement necessary for understanding SFFH and conveying its meaning to others. We notice the gaps between what is and what might be, what was and what might have been. Between what we’re promised—or threatened with—and what might actually come about. We are rich in insights; our minds mint brilliance, our hearts shine with the burnished glow of our stories, our sagas.”

There will be (at the very least) one other peek into the Everfair universe with “Sun River”, a story that Shawl has in the upcoming collection Clockwork Cairo. Also, anyone in the Seattle area (or up for a trip) can experience a collection of art based around Shawl’s novel and work, at the Push/Pull Art Gallery. Thankfully, Nisi Shawl is a voice that is not silenced, and I hope that we will see much more of the world she has created with Everfair, and beyond.

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