A couple of years ago, I did a reading at the library in downtown Seattle. Afterward, I gave the book I read from, complete with markup and reading notations, to an audience member. This past July, I met that woman again, this time is Alexandria at the annual GCLS conference. For those who haven’t made the connection yet, the woman was author M.B. Austin, and it was pretty damn awesome to meet up with her again.
Today, she joins us here at Women and Words to share her thoughts on dystopias, steampunk, and the other fabulous worlds authors create for us to enjoy.
Everfair: Alternate History Stirs Hope for Alternate Future
by MB Austin
For a genre whose hallmark is asking the big ‘what ifs’ about human existence, speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) can be frustratingly white, male, Anglo, able-ist and heteronormative. Nisi Shawl‘s steampunk novel Everfair provides both a magnificently crafted story and a refreshing change.
If you are a spec fic reader, you may or may not care for steampunk. You might like it for the weird science al a Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Mary Shelley. The last two decades of steampunk fiction is replete with airships, clockwork automatons, steam-powered computers, and the like. (Also some creative fashion that lends itself well to cosplay.) You might also enjoy the increasing number of strong female protagonists and supporting characters, not all of whom are straight, white, or rich. (Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memery and Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series come to mind, right off). And if you are an Anglophile, you will find plenty of stories set in Victorian Britain.
But the enticing features of the sub-genre can only satisfy for so long, saturated as they are with European and Euro-American settings and viewpoints. What about the rest of the world during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s? If we are going to create alternate histories in the first place, why only tell them through the eyes of the world’s colonizers? Spec fic author Nisi Shawl reached her limit several years ago — and thank Goddess she did.
Everfair is what one of my critique partners would call “a really big story.” Told by eleven point-of-view characters, it spans thirty years (1899 to 1919) and touches down in over a dozen countries (often via intercontinental airship). Everfair provides the physical and emotional heart of the story, a fictional nation founded on Utopian ideals.
Shawl skillfully steers clear of the known perils of literary Utopias. Too many of those only display the writer’s own biases, showcasing a sanitized world where people like himself (and even herself, in two notable cases) effectively oppress the Other. Readers like me prefer our dystopias straight up; and spec fic offers a myriad of fictional worlds that let us root for the underdog against a ruthless theocracy, a high-tech police state, or a post-tech brutal anarchy.
But Everfair resists the urge to simply overcome an historical dystopia through technology and moxie. It’s a tempting tack for a writer to take in an alternate history. Because, if we relate to the protagonists, dystopias and post-apocalyptic worlds let us vicariously see ourselves struggling against terrible odds to survive, with a measure of hope and redemption. Fans, movie deals, and merchandising reliably follow that formula. (Especially in YA, which Everfair is not.)
As a reader, I don’t need more and more creatively harrowing dystopias. I grow weary of imagining my world if history had taken a worse turn (the ‘Hilter won’ trope) or simply followed a frighteningly realistic trajectory (Handmaiden’s Tale and eco-collapse tales). My suspension of disbelief suffers in the light of real life. Every September I recall the horror of watching the Twin Towers fall. Every World AIDS day I honor the souls we lost to the plague years. I can see our climate crisis, bombed out cities, and desperate refugees on my daily news feed. From my fiction, I need a ‘what if’ that I cannot supply myself.
As an alternate history, Everfair takes a more ambitious path. Rooted in well-researched actual history, it centers on the Congo Free State, devastated by genocide and human rights atrocities under Belgium’s king. Real life could not plausibly have gotten any worse. So the story asks instead what could have made it better. What if a modest group of diverse characters dared to undertake an audacious experiment in egalitarian living, right there and then? What if they had fantastical resources, combined with realistic good intentions, human flaws, interpersonal and political conflicts, and unquenchable determination? How would that turn out?
Uncovering the answers, chapter by chapter, provides equal measures of food for thought and entertainment. Shawl brings us the voices of complex characters, a sprinkling of humor, a dose of romance, and an unshakable sense of hope.
MB Austin is a mild-mannered civil servant by day. In her off hours, she plays with actual humans in the dojo and with imaginary ones on her computer. She has two series in the works: contemporary romantic intrigue featuring Maji Rios (blackbelt, polyglot, soldier, Brooklynite), and the Mosaic trilogy, genderqueer steampunk tales set in the late 1800’s Mediterranean. Her short works can be found in print and online. MB lives with her wife in Seattle.