Should I read the Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Underground Railroad?

For the last 10 years or so I’ve been reading all, or at least most of, the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist books. In recent times, I’ve added the BFSA and Kitschies shortlists to my reading piles. Over the past couple of years, my interest in reading most of the lists has waned, as my tastes and priorities have evolved. I wittered on a bit about this in May.

Last week, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was announced as this year’s winner. So congrats to Whitehead! It’s also won a whole bunch of other stuff and some critical acclaim. Clearly, it is a work of some significance. Is it science fiction? Is it genre? Is it for me? I’m not sure. The write up of the award in the Guardian explains why it is classed as such: the real underground railway used by slaves was a collection of safe houses – Whitehead reimagines it as an actual underground railroad. I do like magic realism and more importantly, genre-defying speculative fiction.

I read Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One and found it dull. Years later, I couldn’t tell you want happened in the book. Not a clue. I’ve been told his other books are works of genius, especially his debut: The Intuitionist.

The other shortlisted books in the Clarke Award were:

  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
  • Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
  • After Atlas – Emma Newman
  • Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan
  • Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the Chambers, and thought the Sullivan was so-so. Far from her best. Ninefox Gambit is on my pile and will be read within the next few weeks. Tidhar’s book is on my radar and I might get round to reading After Atlas at some point. But can you compare all these traditional science fiction novels (yes, I know Sullivan’s book has angels in, but still…) to Whitehead’s tale of slavery. Well, I’m not so sure, but having not read it, I can’t really say.

I wonder if its inclusion is political.

Still, I’ve added The Underground Railroad to my wish list and I’ll read it later in the year. When the hype has died down a bit.

I’ve very sad that All the Birds in the Sky from Charlie Jane Anders hasn’t had the recognition I think it deserves. I’m hoping the shortlists in 2018 will capture my imagination once again.


14 thoughts on “Should I read the Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Underground Railroad?

  1. Wait wait wait wait, is it SF? Do you think Philip K. Dick’s Man in a High Castle is SF? If you think alternate history is SF then this is SF…. But, why would that detract from reading a good book?

    “I wonder if its inclusion is political.” — um all writing is political.

    1. I guess the issue is if you think alt-history is SF…. Because, these liminal “SF” works are ultra prevalent in the annals of the genre — especially the New Wave movement. And, of course, alt-history is very much considered a cornerstone of science fiction.

      1. Tucker’s Bring the Jubilee (1952) is a well known classic of alternate history — if the South won the war (there are so many along these lines)

        Keith Roberts’ classic Pavane (1968) — I’ll have a review up soon. If Queen Elizabeth was assassinated — included in Pringle’s best 100 SF novels list.

        Kinglsey Amis’ The Alteration (1976) — another if the Reformation was stopped type novel…

        The later is very much SF but written by a mainstream literary author who was a major proponent of science fiction….

        It’s a staple of the genre.

      2. Amis’ The Alteration even won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science-fiction novel in 1976. I guess I get grumpy when people appear to dismiss works that don’t seem to fall neatly in our conception of genre — while the history of the genre demonstrates something rather different. I apologize for my gruffness!

        Hopefully you like it! Whether or not The Underground Railroad deserves to win the award is another debate.

      3. I didn’t think you were being grumpy at all…I love stuff that breaks boundaries and stuff that can’t be pigeon-holed. Just not really got into AH. I appreciate you taking time to read my post and make comments… 🙂

  2. And, All the Birds in the Sky won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo — that’s some serious award hype/recognition! Especially for a first novel.

  3. I agree with so much you said here. I’m curious about this win as well. I have not read The Underground Railroad so I can’t say, but I was surprised that it won. I thought Ninefox Gambit would win, honestly. I’ve also read Zone One and found it just OK! I have read After Atlas, which was fantastic, and Central Station, which I really enjoyed. And yes! All the Birds in the Sky was SO good. It did win an award recently though, didn’t it?

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