Namwali Serpell has won the UK’s top prize for science fiction, the Arthur C Clarke award, for her first novel The Old Drift, which judges described as “stealth sci-fi”.
The Zambian author’s debut tells the stories of three families over three generations, moving from a colonial settlement by Victoria Falls at the turn of the 20th century, to the 1960s as Zambia attempts to send a woman to the moon, and into the near future. A mix of historical fiction, magical realism and sci-fi, Serpell saw off competition from authors including previous winner Adrian Tchaikovsky and Hugo best novel winner Arkady Martine to take the prize. Originally established by the author Arthur C Clarke with the aim of promoting science fiction in Britain, the award goes to the best sci-fi novel of the year.
Chair of judges Andrew M Butler called The Old Drift “an extraordinary family saga that spans eras from Cecil Rhodes to Rhodes Must Fall, and beyond”, praising it for “interrogat[ing] colonialism from within and point[ing] to the science fictionality of everyday events”.
“The Old Drift is, as one of our judges put it, ‘stealth sci-fi’, with inheritance and infection at its heart,” said Butler. “Our pandemic-ravaged world reminds us how connected our world has been for the last century or more – and this book points to the global nature of science fiction.”
Last year’s winner of the prize, Tade Thompson, called The Old Drift “the great African novel of the 21st century”.
“At last, a book that acknowledges that the African lives with the fantastic and mundane. At last, an African book of unarguable universality,” said Thompson. “Serpell has created something specifically Zambian and generally African at the same time. The Old Drift is everything fiction should be, and everything those of us who write should aspire to. Hats off. Well-deserved win.”
Serpell was born in Zambia and moved to the US as a child. According to analysis by Clarke judge and author Stewart Hotston, she was one of just 14 people of colour whose work was submitted for the prize in 2020, from 121 submissions. Just three of the 14 were British, according to Hotston.
“In my view there were actually more books with problematic depictions of race than there are books by authors from those very communities,” Hotston wrote in the Bookseller in July. “British genre publishing has a problem and it’s structural and that structure is, as they always are, leading to screening of non-white authors because they ‘don’t fit’. They don’t fit the idea of what an author is or what kind of content they should be producing to be acceptable.”
Hotston said it was encouraging to see white editors asking to see more manuscripts by authors from a more diverse range of cultures and races. “Those manuscripts definitely exist,” he said. “However, this willingness has to translate into actual action.”