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Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair is a steampunk alternative history set largely in Central Africa, in the lands known in our history as the Belgian Congo. Its point of divergence from history lies in the decision of the British Fabian Society to purchase land in the Congo from Belgium's King Leopold and, in partnership with African-American missionaries, attempt to establish a sanctuary country - Everfair.

Everfair the novel has a dual purpose (aside from entertainment, of course, which it fulfill quite well). First, to present the attitudes and actions associated with colonialism and imperialism in Africa (including cultural colonisation, shown most clearly in the efforts of the black missionaries, themselves both victims and perpetrators of the colonisation of the mind), and second, to interrogate the ways in which
steampunk as a genre fails to recognise the ways in which it creates nostalgia for the colonial project. Inmy opinion, it manages both of these quite well.

The inhabitants of Everfair the nascent country - and its enemies, the violent armies and rubber harvesters of King Leopold - together form a microcosm of the conditions of colonialism. White and privileged freethinkers from the Fabian Society, Europeans seeking riches or adventure, African-American Christians seeking a home in the land of their lost roots, labourers from Macao and the Indian subcontinent, escaped black slaves from Leopold's rubber plantations, and the indigenous Afrucan peoples to whom the lands making up Everfair actually belong - it falls to these peoples to defeat the Belgians, survive the first world war, and surmount the supremacist assumptions of the white "founders" of Everfair and the African-American Christian colonists (themselves internally colonised by the experiences of abduction and slavery) they partner with.

And there are all the lovely steampunk things - aircanoes, and motorised bicycles and boats, and mechanical prosthetic limbs for all those mutilated by the Belgians, or in the battles of resistance.

I am not, generally speaking, enthralled by steampunk, but the genre worked for me here, possibly because of the context in which it is situated - not privileged Europeans or North Americans off on adventures, but oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, their culture and their lives.

The novel covers a rather large span of time,and has quite a large cast of significant characters, which necessarily limits some detail in characterisation and plot, but I did not find that the story suffered from this in any way. An engaging read.

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"Trollbooth," Maureen Tanafon, April 2015, Crossed Genres
http://crossedgenres.com/magazine/028-trollbooth/

While the men around her bluster around violently in an attempt to save two children lost to supernatural captors, a courageous young woman takes another path to win their freedom.


"And the Balance in Blood," Elizabeth Bear, November 2015, Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/and-the-balance-in-blood/

Bear's fantasy novelette is a marvellous story about an unusual hero, a grey-haired cloistered religieuse named Sister Scholique who has the gift of the gods' grace; her prayers are often answered by the gods, from small things like a prayer to allow her to overhear a conversation just beyond the range of her hearing, to prayers for the souls of the dead. In fact, it is this latter purpose that takes up most of her time, praying over wax recordings of prayers for the dead as she turns these cylinders in her chantry. When a dream gives her an idea of how to build an automated chantry that will give her more free time, she sets her church on a path that leads to potential abuses. A beautifully written tale that asks questions about the influence of the wealthy in accessing practices meant to be available to all.


"The House of Surrender," Laurie Penny, January 11, 2016, Der Freitag
https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/the-house-of-surrender

In the future, people have learned to live mostly in harmony. Captialism, the belief in hierarchies and the idea that one person can with impunity interfere with the autonomy of another are all distant memories of the past. But sometimes people, being people, offend against others, and if there is no way for them to live among others, they come to the island of the House of Surrender. And there they stay. Until one day a man arrives at the House who claims to be from the past.


"Two to Leave," Yoon Ha Lee, May 28 2015, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/two-to-leave/

Yoon Ha Lee writes in a style all his own, lyrical, elegant, packed with images and delicate allusions. His writing seems to speak to the heart and the unconscious - when I read one of his stories, I often feel that I've just encountered something deeply profound, yet something I cannot quite capture in words, something that partakes of the nature of our dreams. So it is with this story, and deservedly so, for this is a story of a ferryman, and a river that cannot be crossed without sacrifice, a mercenary who kills with a swarm of bees, a messenger raven, and of eyes, and vision, taken and given. Of life and death and the states inbetween and the ways to reach them.


"Vulcanization," Nisi Shawl, January 2016, Nightmare Magazine
http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/vulcanization/

King Leopold of Belgium seeks to rid himself of the ghosts of the Congo. A steampunk meditation on atrocity, remembrance and guilt. Powerful.


"Our Lady of the Open Road," Sarah Pinsker, June 2015, Asimov's Magazine
http://www.sarahpinsker.com/our_lady_of_the_open_road/

In the future, people's fears of mingling with those they don't know, combined with increasingly sophisticated technology that makes possible holographic displays of concerts and sports events in the safety and security of one's home, have almost destroyed the idea of live performance and the travelling band. But a few artists remain on the road, committed to the belief that performance art involves the immediate relationship between performer and audience, no matter how high the cards are stacked against them.


"The Killing Jar," Laurie Penny, January 2016, Motherboard
http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-killing-jar

In the not too distant future, the simulated murders of television and film are no longer sufficient to satisfy the public craving for blood and circuses. Society has recognised and legitimated a new kind of performance, the serial killer - who is free to kill as long as he follows the rules.
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Filter House, Nisi Shawl

Filter House is Nisi Shawl’s first book, a collection of short stories that all fit under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction, some leaning more toward science fiction, some toward fantasy, some toward magic realism, some toward the supernatural, all drawing on African/African-American experience and story. Shawl tends toward a literary voice, but I found all the stories in this collection accessible and immensely readable. Shawl looks fearlessly at the intersection of race, class and gender, and speaks from a post-colonial perspective that makes her work thought-provoking as well as entertaining.

I’m very much anticipating Shawl’s next published fiction, no matter what it is or when it arrives on the bookstore shelves.

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Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward are professional writers of speculative fiction who jointly developed and teach the workshop "Writing the other: bridging cultural differences for successful fiction." This book contains material adapted from their workshop, as well as two essays written by Shawl, “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere,” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.”

This volume is designed to be used by authors concerned about honestly, effectively and respectfully writing about people, settings and cultures that diverge from the dominant paradigm -the unmarked state. I can’t venture an opinion on how well it does this, because I am not myself a writer. But I have found it to be, whether by design or not, an excellent book for the reader who is interested in seeing more clearly how successfully the books she reads are at writing the other.

The authors give many examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts at writing culturally diverse works. While there is a strong focus on race, they also consider sex and sexual orientation, culture and religion. Oddly enough, they seem to consider social class not a major category of "Other," at least in North American writing. I would tend to disagree, but I imagine that in a workshop, one must choose topics carefully, as there is not time enough to cover everything one might want to.

I was personally most engaged by the section on cultural appropriation, because it's something that I worry about a lot in my own life. I have a very strong sense of attraction, indeed resonance, to aspects of the art, culture, philosophy and religion of a number of other peoples, and it is often an inner struggle for me to try to work out whether I'm being a cultural poacher or a respectful learner. I'm still not sure I know the answer, but this essay gave me more ways in which to think about what it is that I do.

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