This evening, at a special ceremony held at Foyles’ flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road in lovely London, the winner of the 31st annual Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced. A suitably celebratory spread of genre readers, writers and industry figures were in attendance as the UK’s most prestigious prize for science fiction literature was awarded to Colson Whitehead for his “intensely moving” novel The Underground Railroad.
Andrew M. Butler, chair of a panel of judges that included representatives of the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation and the SCI-FI LONDON Film Festival, expressed delight at the decision, describing Whitehead’s sixth novel—which concerns a pair of slaves fighting for their freedom along the length of a subterranean railway—as “a gripping account both of humanity’s inhumanity and the potential for resistance, underpinned by science fiction’s ability to make metaphor literal.”
Whitehead himself was unfortunately unable to attend the ceremony, but plenty of peeps from his UK publisher Fleet were on hand to read out this short but sweet speech:
“This is wonderful news! Way back when I was ten years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer. 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, and I’m grateful that a book like The Underground Railroad, which could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature, is being recognised with the Arthur C. Clarke Award.”
Whitehead’s triumph entitles him to the traditional trophy—a commemorative, engraved bookend—and a prize pot of £2017.
As “a tribute to Sir Arthur’s original intent that the award be as inclusive as possible in defining its genre,” Award Director Tom Hunter added, “and a book that demonstrates science fiction’s uncanny ability to be both of the moment and an enduringly powerful message for futures to come […] The Underground Railroad is a much-deserved winner.” Not least, he noted, because “2017 marks Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s centenary year.”
Given which, the aforementioned ceremony also acted as the staging ground for several exciting announcements, with Hunter revealing “commemorative plans for a new science fiction anthology featuring stories from both past winning and shortlisted authors where every story will be precisely 2001 words long.”
Add to that a mooted “music project releasing a science fiction score inspired by Sir Arthur’s famous ‘Three Laws’ quotes,” the second of which—which states that “the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible”—feels like a fitting encapsulation of the Arthur C. Clarke Award administration’s exceedingly interesting ambitions.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.