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

Pulitzer prize winner Colson Whitehead has been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction, with his novel The Underground Railroad appearing on a six-book list that may be the prize’s most diverse yet.

Brought to fame by his Pulitzer win – and his selection for both former US president Barack Obama’s summer reading list and Oprah’s book club – Whitehead’s sixth novel follows two slaves who try to find freedom from their Georgia plantations by following the underground railroad: a network of safe houses in reality, Whitehead transforms the route into a literal, steampunk railway.

Alongside Whitehead is Becky Chambers, who made the 2016 shortlist with her debut The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and is nominated again for its sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit. Transgender Korean-American writer Yoon Ha Lee is listed for his debut Ninefox Gambit, as is Emma Newman for sci-fi mystery After Atlas and Israeli-born Lavie Tidhar for Central Station, set in the titular spaceport in a futuristic Tel Aviv. Eighteen years after winning for her novel Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan rounds out the list with Occupy Me, which the Guardian called “a work of startling originality”.

While Clarke himself – author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, among a multitude of novels – might seem like the archetype of the classic science fiction author, his award has long banged the drum for other voices. Thirty years since the first Clarke award was handed out in 1987 – when the inaugural winner, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was selected from a field including black author Samuel R Delany, Gwyneth Jones and Josephine Saxton – the award’s administrator Tom Hunter said the prize has always sought to find shortlists that were a true reflection of the genre. “For the judges, the big question is all about finding what they consider the best science fiction books of the year,” he said, adding: “I hope people will think of this as a diverse list in the best sense of the word … There is also a strong sense of cohesion and a powerful sense of just how exciting, challenging and insightful science fiction writing can be.”

Voted for by a jury, rather than a popular vote like the Hugos, this year’s judging panel is Shana Worthen, Paul March-Russell, Una McCormack, Charles Christian, Andrew McKie and chair Andrew M Butler, who said of the six books: “Any of these could win – at this point I cannot begin to guess.”

The shortlist was selected from 86 submissions – fewer than in recent years, when it has topped 100, but still almost double what was submitted when Hunter first took over as administrator a decade ago.

“The award was originally launched with the intention of positively promoting science fiction in the UK, and providing a prize that stood shoulder to shoulder with the big American awards like the Hugo or the Nebula. This was greatly helped by the fact we had a cash prize, originally supported directly by Sir Arthur, alongside the trophies and all the glory, and I think today the Clarke award stands right alongside those prizes,” he said.

The winner will be announced at a ceremony at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London on 27 July, taking home the traditional cash prize equal to the year – £2,017 this time.

Arthur C Clarke 2017 shortlist

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
After Atlas by Emma Newman (Roc)
Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)
Central Station by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

Contributor

David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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