Everfair – Nisi Shawl

I’ve written before about the challenges and shortcomings of steampunk as a genre. It was why I was so excited to receive a review copy of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair from Tor. It’s the book about colonialism I have been waiting a long time to read.  
Firmly rooted in history, Shawl imagines an alternate history for the Congo Free State in the late 19th century. The real history is bloody and shameful. As Shawl acknowledges in the historical note that opens Everfair, under King Leopold II of Belgium, around half of the population disappeared between 1895 and 1908. Much of the motive for this was the production of cheap rubber under highly exploitative conditions. And as any industrial historian will tell you, rubber was essential for much of the Industrial Revolution, making colonialism and the exploitation of natural resources elsewhere in the world a central element of Western industrial progress. This is exemplified by Lisette’s love of her rubber-tyred bicycle and the freedom it represents in the opening of the novel. Shawl imagines an alternate path for the Congo Free State. A group of idealistic Europeans and freed American slaves work with the indigenous people to defeat King Leopold’s troops and found a progressive state. Ingenuity combined with local raw materials drive a steampunk society that quickly prospers. The novel follows the country’s history as it throws off the yoke of Belgian colonialism and navigates WWI. 
What’s so refreshing about Everfair is to see racism and the power dynamics of colonialism set out front and centre. At their best, the Western settlers are motivated by idealism and a genuine desire to create a better place. But they are also racist, entitled, privileged and crashingly tone deaf to how they come across. Many of the central conflicts in the novel stem from the interplay between those attitudes and those of the indigenous population. For some, it is the first time they’ve encountered racism: the mixed race Lisette Toutournier is white-passing in Europe, but on moving to Africa is forced to engage with her heritage, particularly the unthinking racism of her lover Daisy Albin.  
But the real joy of Everfair is its cast of characters. There’s the intelligent and elegant Queen Josina, the peace-maker and diplomat, wife to the canny King Mwenda. Tink, the visionary engineer from Macao who is at the heart of so much of the country’s development, but mourns his lost love Lily all his life. Fwendi: actress, spy and lover of an English playwright. Martha Hunter, the puritanical widowed missionary who seeks to bring Christianity to Africa, and takes such unalloyed joy in her unexpected second marriage.All of them bring a tremendous richness to a fantastic book.  
Goodreads rating: 4*

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The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

I have a problem with steampunk.  And I say this as someone who grew up reading great Victorian stories of adventure and exploration, like the work of H Rider Haggard.  Steampunk far too often romanticises privilege and Empire.  Anxiety about the direction of contemporary society and its technology manifests as a wistful nostalgia for an alternative future branching out from the Industrial Revolution.  One based on brass and steam rather than the microchip, and where everyone knows their place in society.  It is a sub-genre that very rarely interrogates issues of class, colonialism and gender, instead perpetuating very problematic attitudes under the fiction that this “is just how things were”.  (No, it wasn’t, as any half-way decent scholar of Victorian society would tell you.)  It’s all corsets, tea, gin and brass goggles, not child labour, poverty, disease and worker exploitation.

I had high hopes for The Difference Engine.  It promises conspiracy at the highest levels of government and adventure.  Both William Gibson (famously the inventor of cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling have great credibility as writers looking at the disruptive impact of technology.  But ultimately, the novel just didn’t deliver for me.

The plot of the novel is a bit of a mess.  It starts well, with a murder that sends a prostitute named Sybil on the run to France with some stolen diamonds and a set of Engine punch cards that are highly sought after.  But we then don’t hear of Sybil again until the end of the book.  The flabby middle section follows Mallory tracking down a rebel called Captain Swing who is threatening to ruin his reputation.  Characters drift in and out, and there is no clear resolution of any of the plotlines.  The promised high-level conspiracy does not materialise in any meaningful way.

The characters are also extremely disappointing.  Female characters are few and far between, and generally prostitutes or identified as sexually promiscuous.  Mallory’s sister is a mere plot device that we never get to meet.  Lady Ada Byron, based on Ada Lovelace, is venerated as the Queen of Engines, but there is no sense of her transformative and visionary genius in the novel.  She is a faded figure with a gambling habit who barely makes an appearance.

As well as being sexist, it’s also crashingly racist.  I winced in particular at the portrayal of some Japanese gentlemen who do little more than be ninjas for hire, while extolling the virtues of Victorian industrial progress and asserting that the Japanese should aspire to replace their culture and language with their English equivalents.  All delivered in a deeply offensively stereotyped set of speech patterns.  There is no examination of colonialism or Empire at all.  Johnny Foreigner is just there to benefit from the wisdom, progress and knowledge of the English.

Goodreads rating: 1*