Colson Whitehead adds Arthur C Clarke award to growing prize haul

The Underground Railroad, a fantastic reimagining of US slavery, takes the UK’s pre-eminent science fiction prize a day after being longlisted for the Man Booker

Fresh from being nominated for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Colson Whitehead’s alternative history of slavery in the US, The Underground Railroad, has won the UK’s top honour for science fiction, the Arthur C Clarke award.

A fantastical take on the real-life Underground Railroad, which was a network of safe houses and routes that allowed slaves in the south to escape to the free states in the north, Whitehead’s novel sees the network reimagined as an actual railway system and follows a slave escaping from a cotton plantation in Georgia.

The Underground Railroad has already won Whitehead a Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and is longlisted for the Man Booker prize. But on Thursday night, the novel was named the 31st winner of the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction, extolled by chair of judges Andrew M Butler as an “intensely moving” read.

“It’s a gripping account both of humanity’s inhumanity and the potential for resistance, underpinned by science fiction’s ability to make metaphor literal,” said Butler.

Award director Tom Hunter called the novel a “much deserved winner” and “a tribute to Sir Arthur’s original intent that the award be as inclusive as possible in defining its genre”. Past winners range from established names in the literary firmament such as Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh to straight science-fiction writers including Ann Leckie and Chris Beckett.

Whitehead’s novel, said Hunter, is “a book that demonstrates science fiction’s uncanny ability to be both of the moment and an enduringly powerful message for futures to come”.

Whitehead said that landing the £2,017 prize – the winnings are adjusted annually to match the year – was wonderful, and that The Underground Railroad “could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature”. A Guardian review of the novel said that “it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America”.

“Way back when I was 10 years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer,” said Whitehead, whose previous novel Zone One featured zombies. “If you were a writer, you could work from home, you didn’t have to talk to anybody, and you could just make up stuff all day. Stuff about robots and maybe zombies and maybe even miraculous railway lines. Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Colson Whitehead leads Arthur C Clarke award shortlist
The Underground Railroad heads up finalists for science fiction honour in wake of Pulitzer prize win and presidential endorsement

David Barnett

03, May, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Science fiction’s future: where next for the Arthur C Clarke award?
As the prize celebrates its 30th anniversary, its director looks forward to fresh challenges and opportunities in an ever-changing genre

Tom Hunter

28, Apr, 2016 @3:40 PM

Article image
Arthur C Clarke award goes to 'classic' novel exploring the limits of pregnancy
Anne Charnock’s novel Dreams Before the Start of Time, which focuses on changing reproductive science, hailed as ‘rich but unshowy’ by judges

Sian Cain

18, Jul, 2018 @8:00 PM

Article image
Chris Beckett wins Arthur C Clarke award for Dark Eden
Chris Beckett beat Kim Stanley Robinson and Ken MacLeod to win the UK's top science fiction prize for his novel about an incestuous colony stranded on an alien planet

Alison Flood

01, May, 2013 @8:01 PM

Article image
A Booker judge's envy of the Arthur C Clarke award
In a very impressive shortlist, the received distinction between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction has never looked so flimsy

Stuart Kelly

04, Apr, 2013 @11:01 AM

Article image
The Arthur C Clarke awards put women first
David Barnett: After last year's embarrassing all-male shortlist, organisers are this year reminding voters that women write SF too

David Barnett

17, Jan, 2014 @12:16 PM

Article image
Michel Faber's space missionary joins MR Carey's zombies on Arthur C Clarke shortlist
The Book of Strange New Things and The Girl With All the Gifts lead contenders for UK’s top SF prize

Alison Flood

08, Apr, 2015 @9:20 AM

Article image
Laura Jean McKay wins the Arthur C Clarke award
The Australian writer has won the prestigious science fiction prize for her debut novel The Animals in That Country

Alison Flood

27, Sep, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Iain Pears' app-based novel shortlisted for Arthur C Clarke award
Arcadia joins works by Becky Chambers, Adrian Tchaikovsky, JP Smythe, Dave Hutchinson and Nnedi Okorafor

Alison Flood

27, Apr, 2016 @7:30 PM

Article image
Arthur C Clarke award goes to Adrian Tchaikovsky's novel of 'universal scale'
Children of Time, about humans who leave a dying Earth for a terraformed planet where they meet a strange new species, praised for Clarkean sense of wonder

Alison Flood

24, Aug, 2016 @8:00 PM