By now you’ll most likely have heard of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
The American writer's alternate history novel is less a subterranean secret, more a juggernaught of buzz that’s currently crossing genre borderlines with the speed of a runaway express.
Winner of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, Booker long-listed, lauded by Oprah and feted as “fantastic” by Barack Obama (the last book he read in the White House, and thus allegedly the last book read by a US President to date), The Underground Railroad has just added the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature to its roster of accolades.
2017 is a particularly important year for the Clarke Award, as it marks the centenary of Sir Arthur’s birth. As director of the award for ten years now, I view this win as a tribute to Sir Arthur’s original intent: that the award be as inclusive as possible in defining its genre. For The Underground Railroad demonstrates science fiction’s uncanny ability to be both of the moment and to act as an enduringly powerful message for futures to come.
In many ways, this centenary year win is the perfect bookend to the first ever winner of the award, 31 years ago. As the recent Channel 4 series has shown, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as resonant, popular and profitable as it was when it scooped the award three decades ago - if not more. And Whitehead's success also demonstrates how publishing attitudes towards science fiction as literature has changed since then.
Proving the influence and value of literature awards can be hard work. However, in the past five years we have seen a marked rise in the total number of submissions the Clarke Award receives every year. And a large part of that increase has been driven by mainstream publishing imprints, who are keen to put their titles into contention alongside the usual entries from more niche, genre-focused teams.
And why not? Fantasy and science fiction are riding high in both popular, critical and political cultures (see the protestors dressed as handmaids). The current generations of authors are as likely to have been inspired by Blade Runner, Doctor Who, 2000AD or Watchmen as they are by canonical set texts. As Whitehead himself put it in his acceptance speech:
“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.”
The change occuring isn't that science fiction is taking over the mainstream. It's that mainstream and literary fiction are increasingly keen to adopt the tools and technologies of science fictional speculation. And our rising submissions numbers are just one modest proof of that trend.
However, there is still resistance to this blurring of lines. When I pick up the phone to suggest a publisher send in a book, I never know whether the response will be an enthusiastic yes (as it was with Whitehead’s team at Fleet) or whether there will be a slight pause followed by a firm refusal.
To be fair, the refusals are always polite - but also often quite vague in their reasoning. Think ‘we’re not positioning the book that way’ or ‘we don’t really think of it as science fiction’ or ‘we don’t think it’ll win, and we only submit to prizes where we think we will.’
That last one I sort of understand. Judging panels change every year; part of the joy of being involved in an award like the Clarke is in its unpredictability. Compare The Underground Railroad with last year's winner Children of Time (Tor UK), an epic novel of future world-building and artificial evolution feautring a race of sentient spiders.
But there's an important lesson for publishers here. Science fiction readers are a hyper-connected bunch but they're also diverse, with tastes and interests far outside the simple demographic bucket of classic SF. Publishers who opt out of courting or marketing to this group because their novels don't fit some cliched profile are missing a serious trick.
To demonstrate, here’s some data from our own audience surveys.
- First, while the vast majority of readers surveyed identified that science fiction or geek culture was a big part of their personal identity, they actively resisted the notion that it was their primary or singular defining point. Basically, they have other interests and read other stuff.
- In addition to this, they are active consumers and far more likely to take their recommendations from a variety of sources, not just the big award lists, press reviews or 3for2 tables at front of store - they are active in seeking out new reads all year around.
- We were also fascinated to see that the majority of readers in our sample were not only reading 50+ books a year but also buying 50+ books a year. But here’s the rub - of those 50 books being read a year, only an average of five of those titles were read in the actual year of their publication. You can count on reviews, blogs, tweets and so much more, but they are a groundswell, not a spike. In an industry that focuses all the weight of its attention on publication day before moving on to the next release, this is something of a problem.
Science fiction is an elusive concept to define: Is it a genre or a perspective? A 20th century pulp tradition, or a branch of fantastical literature spanning centuries of human imagination and springing from a species-wide sense of wonder? Your definition may vary, but trust me on this. Today, a science fiction readership championing your book is a thing much to be desired.
I know Sir Arthur C. Clarke would be celebrating Colson Whitehead’s win with us all today. More than that - he would be throwing down a challenge, pushing us to seek out new definitions of science fiction and to make first contact with new outposts of the literary publishing world. After all, he famously said that “The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible." Expanding the boundaries of science fiction is not only possible, it’s already happened, and I hope to do it over again next year.
The 32nd Arthur C. Clarke Award is now open for submissions, for novels first published in the UK in 2017.