Nisi Shawl’s debut novel is a beautifully written and thrillingly ambitious alternate history. It chronicles the first quarter-century of Everfair, an imagined utopia founded in the late 19th century in what was then the Belgian Congo. But Shawl didn’t need to create a fictional despot for her tale: In 1885, Belgium’s King Leopold seized control of the region, which he ran as a private enterprise, exploiting its resources to feed the new demand for rubber. Millions of Africans were slaughtered. Myriad others were enslaved to work the rubber plantations or forced into concentration camps.
In our own world, Leopold established a vast fortune even as he kept the extent of his atrocities from becoming public for decades. In Shawl’s alternate world, a small group of idealists unite in the late 1880s with the goal of wresting the Congo from Leopold’s tyranny and establishing a new country there, which they name Everfair. The extensive cast of characters includes the territory’s rightful king, Mwenda , and other members of the royal family, most memorably his favorite wife, Josina, and their daughter, Mwadi; two African American missionaries, Thomas Wilson and the widowed Martha Hunter; and Ho Lin-Huang (known as Tink), an indentured railroad worker and brilliant engineer.
Among Tink’s inventions are aircanoes, marvelous steam-powered dirigibles constructed from Everfair’s plentiful resources (rubber, timber, barkcloth, woven baskets), and beautifully wrought brass-and-steel prosthetic hands. Fanciful as these devices may seem, their necessity derives from the grim reality of Everfair’s political landscape: War is a constant, even in utopia. The prosthetics, some of them weaponized, are designed to replace hands chopped off by Leopold’s brutal soldiers and overseers. The aircanoes are used not just for transportation and trade, but for bombing raids and rescue missions.
There are personal and societal conflicts as well. Many of the novel’s central characters engage in domestic, sexual or spiritual unions that couldn’t exist outside of Everfair: biracial, bisexual, polyamorous or spanning great differences in age or religious belief. The passionate and seemingly enduring affair between two women is derailed not by the revelation that one of them is mulatto, but by fear for children from a previous marriage. A pious Christian missionary finds himself the powerful intermediary of an ancient African god.
Shawl, an acclaimed short-story writer and anthologist, dedicates her first novel to the late black feminist author Octavia E. Butler, whose own brilliant speculative legacy lives on in Everfair, a nation ultimately determined by women. It’s a tribute to Shawl’s powerful writing that her intricate, politically and racially charged imaginary world seems as believable — sometimes more believable — than the one we inhabit.
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent novel is “Hard Light.”
By Nisi Shawl
Tor. 384 pp. $26.99