Fantasy Round 54: Nuclear Powered Airships
Everfair, by Nisi Shawl, is a steampunk alternate history of how things might have been better.
Specifically, it examines the Belgian Congo (which in the modern day is the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It asks “what if” — what if a group of idealistic colonists, former American slaves, and many groups of indigenous people fought against the brutalities of Belgian King Leopold’s government, and formed their own country? What if there was a little more technology and a little more magic?
The book is a bit closer to an anthology than a novel, with the action spread across continents and decades. The contents are a well-researched alternate history, from the limb-chopping atrocities of the Belgian forces to the wealth of natural resources they came for.
One of the big issues with steampunk is where the power comes from. If you want to float an airship, you’re going to need an awful lot of coal to heat up the air for your balloon, and also to run any propellers you might have.
The more coal you need, the heavier your ship is. You have to carry more fuel instead of cargo.
This is… noticeably inconvenient.
But, one thing Everfair has (and the real-world Congo does, too) is the “sacred earths” of the Bah-Sangah people. They are only to be manipulated while wearing heavy ritual garments, and should be kept well separate from any people. Persons of reproductive age should avoid handling the stuff entirely. Activating the material in the “Little Heater” can be done by removing a slat that divides the two compartments containing the sacred earths.
This is pitchblende, which is apparently supposed to be referred to as uraninite now to avoid confusion. The Congo has some of the world’s highest-grade uranium ore — enough so that it was the original source of ore for the Manhattan Project.
How the Bah-Sangah process the uranium ore is a secret they keep throughout the book, but we can infer that they are likely operating a just sub-critical mass of uranium. Removing the divider allows the fission reaction to heat up and proceed more rapidly.
And suffice it to say, running your airship on nuclear power definitely saves a lot of weight relative to coal or gas. It’s actually a significant plot point in the story — other countries want to know how the Everfair citizens manage the feat, and they go to some effort to keep their secret.
Overall, I find this a pleasant solution to some of the issues that arise in steampunk settings. (Well, aside from the potential long-term issues with radiation exposure…)
The atrocities at the beginning are suitably horrifying. The torture and death for the sake of cheap rubber aren’t pretty.
But those problems get solved — through ingenuity, and fighting back. Technology and grit and sacrifice.
What bothers me are the problems that are implied to be unsolvable in the real world — the ones where nothing short of magical intervention is sufficient.
Daisy the Poet is a major protagonist throughout the book, but she has a serious, common failing for the time. She sees miscegenation as a serious ill. While she works equitably with the African peoples native to Everfair, she never stops seeing them as lesser — or even the fact that she sees them as lesser. No amount of explaining can make her understand why the local people of Everfair are so offended at her proposal to honor a white man as the sole “Founder” of Everfair. Only mystical intervention by a queen’s enchanting bees suffices to open her eyes.
I would have preferred to see a more gradual, realistic transformation, rather than this sudden transformation. Could we not see her friends and colleagues gradually getting through to her, wearing down her racial prejudice over the years, bit by bit?
Then again, perhaps that is the point. Many things don’t have an obvious or easy solution. By the end of the story, while Everfair is far better than the DRC, it is still developing some of the same problems. Children exploited in the mining industry. Workers misused by their employers. Unequal representation in government.
Everfair is generally a hopeful tale about how things might have been better. Nonetheless, some failings of human nature are, it seems, not so easy to overcome.