Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are five nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 20, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.
I’ve long been a devotee of steampunk, a sub-genre augmenting Victoriana with the confounding technology of steam-driven wonders: dirigibles floating over a smoggy London, the clockwork mechanics of a spycraft prosthetic, a brass diving bell sunk down to inspect kraken and other terrors of the deep. Steampunk can make for an absolutely ripping adventure novel, with the kind of futurism imagined by Jules Verne set into the past in a charming anachronism.
Like any enthusiast, I naturally have my complaints with the genre. I have read roughly one million books where the spunky daughter of an inventor works to clear his name after his death. Steampunk often travels in tight circles around a very specific landscape, one of corsets and goggles and the haut ton. In Everfair, Nisi Shawl blows up the conventions of steampunk in the most satisfying way possible.
In this history, the Fabian Society, a real organization that would eventually become the Labour Party in England, instead bought land in Belgian Congo to start a utopian society of sorts. Socialist laborers, free-love polygamists, African-American Christian missionaries and others, make up the original settlers of Everfair, their idealistic country-within-a-country. They almost immediately come into the conflict with King Leopold II of Belgium and his bloody reign over the Congo Free State. Do a quick scan of the wiki page about the murder Leopold enacted in Congo, both directly and by proxy; it’s not pretty. The Fabians join with the local King Mwenda, an alliance as tenuous as all the alliances of Everfair: Christian and socialist, black and white and mixed race, and a panoply of African and European languages and cultures.
The denizens of Everfair do everything they can to shelter the people of Congo and fight back against Leopold’s proxies. They’re idealists, after all. I felt a fair amount of dread in the beginning, as I know the track record of utopian societies in our history: they either turn cult and eat themselves from within, or get crushed by their less utopian neighbors. Everfair shows us neither, or both, all at once. It is a beautifully realized alternate history, one in which the trials, successes, and defeats of its titular country feel perfectly situated in our complex global and colonial history.
Why it will win:
Every time I turn around, someone tells me steampunk is dead. (Also, zombies. Which, irony.) I don’t always disagree, but Nisi Shawl absolutely breathes new life into a sometimes moribund genre. Her perspective is broad; she’s telling a story from multiple perspectives over decades. It’s a national epic of an invented nation—one that never existed, but certainly could have. The complex interactions of race and class, gender and ability, faith and economy, work themselves out in a richly imagined society, right there on the edge of it all.
Why it won’t win:
Because of its historically high perspective—watching the grand sweep of a country over decades—Everfair sometimes elides more personal narratives. While we’re treated to the intimate details of a dozen or more characters’ lives, their emotional landscapes feel muffled by a deliberately measured prose and the dipping and skimming of the timeline. Fellow Nebula nominee Ninefox Gambit navigates this tension between historical perspective and interpersonal relationship more adroitly.
The real problem may be that ultimately steampunk—even incredibly well-done steampunk that explodes genre conventions—is a boutique genre, one which many feel comfortable to declare dead or dismiss outright. I happen to disagree—case in point—but I’m not going to pretend my predilections are universal. The Nebula is a broad polling of an admittedly small group of people—the voting pool is published SFF writers—and I think more of them will be drawn to a more broadly accessible work.
That said, every year, there are novels I would have never read, or even heard of, if it weren’t for the Nebula nominations. Everfair is one of those. I totally freaked out when I read the synopsis. I know it’s cheesy to say that’s it’s an honor to be nominated, but its cheesy because it’s often true. I’m glad I visited Everfair, the country and the novel.