2017 Winner

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

31st Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature awarded to Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet) has been announced as the 31st winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the UK’s most prestigious prize for science fiction literature.

Foyles.co.uk Amazon Amazon.com

Andrew M Butler, Chair of Judges, said:

“I’m delighted the judges chose Colson Whitehead’s intensely moving The Underground Railroad. 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.”

In an acceptance speech read out by his publishing team, Colson Whitehead said:

“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.”

Award Director Tom Hunter said:

“2017 marks Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s centenary year, and The Underground Railroad is a much-deserved winner, a tribute to Sir Arthur’s original intent that the award be as inclusive as possible in defining its genre, 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 winner was announced on the evening of Thursday 27th July at a special ceremony held at the Foyles flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London, and presented in front of an audience of science fiction readers, writers, publishers and fans.

The evening also marked 2017 as a year of anniversary celebrations for Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s centenary, with a toast from the audience and award director Tom 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, and a music project releasing a science fiction score inspired by Sir Arthur’s famous ‘Three Laws’ quotes.

Colson Whitehead receives a trophy in the form of a commemorative engraved bookend and prize money of £2017.

The judging panel for the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2017 are:

Andrew M. Butler represents the Arthur C. Clarke Award in a non-voting role as the Chair of the Judges.


  • ‘Bringing this brutal, vital, devastating novel to a wider audience (it has also been selected by Oprah’s book club) will not be the least of Obama’s legacies… here’s something Thomas Pynchon-like about the novel, but without Pynchon’s desiccating distance, his endless tangents. Everything in Whitehead’s narrative is honed to scintillating sharpness… I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained by a book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.’
    The Observer, Alex Preston, October 9th 2016
  • ‘Colson Whitehead’s oeuvre is a ribald and thrilling mixture of sci-fi, mystery and horror, full of class-consciousness, down-home wisdom and heady scepticism. But with his latest novel, Whitehead seems to have discovered a new freedom – as if he had stepped on to the railroad of the title with his heroine, a slave named Cora, and is walking out unbound to show us that what we are taught of slavery is a watery half-truth… a masterful stroke reminiscent of the black American artist Alison Saar’
    The Guardian, Cynthia Bond, November 9th 2016
  • ‘McArthur ‘genius’ fellow Colson Whitehead transforms the network of secret rendezvous, stakeouts and safe houses that were used to help slaves escape the American South in the 19th century into a physical underground railway… In rich, poetic language, Whitehead paints a world of special terror’
    The Economist: 1843 Magazine, Fiametta Rocco
  • ‘…its tales of struggle, resilience, and kinship amidst horrific racism helped give me a fresh perspective on current events as well as being an utterly transporting piece of storytelling.’
    The Pool, 29th July 2016, Alexandra Heminsley
  • ‘from coast to coast the, the book was deemed shattering, timely, necessary, an American masterpiece… Alive with visceral detail… (it is) an engrossing and harrowing novel. The Underground Railroad is a complex and shockingly pessimistic meditation on America’s original sin’
    Theo Tait, Sunday Times, September 25th 2016 (paywall)
  • Daily Telegraph, Duncan White: ‘Novels to look out for later in the season’ 19.9.16 (no link)
  • ‘History and human experience as well as an artist’s obligation to tell the truth have shaped a virtuoso novel that should be read by every American as well as readers across the world. And it will be, it should be’
    Irish Times, Eileen Battersby: October 1st 2016
  • Emerald Street: ‘a stunning, brutal and hugely imaginative book. It’s a favourite of both Oprah Winfrey and Barrack Obama. It is painful history reimagined in a powerful and brilliant way.’ (newsletter – no link)
  • “His gaze takes everything in with neither judgment nor sentiment: his flowing and superb writing, meanwhile, instils both in the reader.”
    The Spectator review by David Partrikarakos, October 15th 2016
  • Daily Telegraph, Duncan White: ‘Whitehead’s achievement is truly remarkable: by giving the Underground Railroad a new mythology, he has found a way of confronting other myths, older and persistent, about the United States. His book cannot have enough readers’ 29.10.16