A frequent objection to utopian literature is that it's boring. Fiction relies on conflict. There is no conflict within a perfect society. One way of dealing with this problem is to develop external threats which the utopians must combat. Yet the big question that undermines the very existence of utopia remains. Is it possible for a society that intends to be utopian to be perfect for all those within its borders?
Everfair by Nisi Shawl is an alternate history that approaches utopia honestly by attempting to address that big question. I received a free copy from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.
Nisi Shawl's alternate historical concept is that in the late 19th century part of the Congo that had been colonized by Belgium was purchased from the King of Belgium by an organization of British socialists called the Fabian Society. The Fabians intended to establish a democratic, cooperative and peaceful society in which individuals of all races could live in harmony, and they intended to do this in the Congo. Anyone who knows the horrific history of the Congo during this period would be certain that these alternate Fabians who were blithely wandering into a genocidal nightmare must be quixotic lunatics who were bound to be slaughtered. Yet one of their leaders in this novel refers to the Fabians as "practical dreamers".
In order to get an idea of the Fabian perspective, I read It's fab to be Fabian , an article that was reprinted in the UK Guardian by 21st century Fabian, Paul Richards. He discusses their history, and why he thinks that Fabian socialism can work in contemporary Britain.
One thing that I noticed about the Fabians in Everfair is that they were continually assuming that allies or settlers in Everfair with very different cultural backgrounds shared the same attitudes and goals as they did. Without a certain Chinese inventor who evidently wasn't a pacifist like the Fabians, Everfair wouldn't have survived for very long. So these dreamers weren't as practical as they thought they were. I think that the Fabians were a catalyst for change in the Congo, but they weren't the actual changemakers.
My favorite changemakers in Everfair were women. Bi-racial Lisette Toutournier was able to navigate between African and European factions. Queen Josina's gifts of the spirit built bridges, and kept her royal husband on track toward their mutual goals. Fwendi's extraordinary paranormal ability facilitated her talent for espionage. None of these three women considered Everfair a utopia.
It was unconscious racism that made Lisette feel like an outsider. In fact, I believe that the establishment of Everfair was based on the racist concept of "The White Man's Burden". This is the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling that promulgated the idea that it's the obligation of Europeans to bring "civilization" AKA European values to Africa. That's the philosophy that justifies colonialism in a nutshell. I'm sure that as the rulers who had been displaced by King Leopold of Belgium, Josina and her husband Mwenda, never lost sight of the fact that Everfair was really a colonialist presence. Fwendi was a beneficiary of Everfair technology, but as an African woman she struggled to be accepted on equal terms.
The Fabians seemed to have perceived their purpose in Africa as benevolent. Obviously, they weren't conscienceless killers like King Leopold, but they were still European occupiers of African territory. So what was a utopia to the Fabians, very definitely wasn't one to the characters who were persons of color.
I value Everfair for its originality, its insight and the moving stories that it told about a number of well-developed characters. I consider it a strong candidate for the finest novel that I read in 2016.