Skip to content

[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2016)

April 28, 2017

I warn you now… this week’s piece is a bit of a monster both in terms of length and in terms of the amount of ground that it covers. It’s the penultimate review in a series of pieces based on my personal shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award.

My piece on Colson Whitehead’s universally-celebrated Underground Railroad considers some of the genre tropes deployed in the novel and concludes that what makes Underground Railroad a work of science fiction is the way that it uses fictional settings to engineer a particular set of emotional responses to the politics of the real world:


The Underground Railroad reminded me quite a bit of The Female Man as the different states recall Russ’s different worlds and their juxtaposition is clearly intended to lead us to a particular set of political insights. The Underground Railroad is not just a work of science fiction but a work of science fiction that is part of a tradition of political writing that stretches beyond the birth of genre all the way back to antiquity.  Unfortunately, while I think that The Underground Railroad shares a lot of common ground with works of Feminist SF like The Female Man, I also think that the book suffers from a lack of moral clarity that would perhaps not be present in a more conventional piece of genre writing.


As I go on to explain in my review, I suspect the conclusion’s lack of moral clarity reflects a degree of political indecision on the part of the author. The book’s first ending finds its protagonist living in an — ultimately unsustainable — bourgeois idyll but while Whitehead acknowledges that black people can’t just pretend that racism doesn’t exist, he’s really not clear on what it is that they should do instead…

This raises another question about the state of American literary culture: Would Underground Railroad have won a Pullitzer prize if it had ended with a demand for Reparations? Would Whitehead have been interviewed by Oprah had his book ended with cathartic depictions of white genocide? I was frustrated by Whitehead’s political indecision but I can understand why he — or any other BAME author — might choose to downplay the radicalism of their politics.

Paul Kincaid’s piece about Underground Railroad touches on many of the same points as mine but he seems a lot happier with the ambivalence of the ending:

There is no resolution to the story, because there can be no resolution. The story of being black in America has not reached any sort of an ending, so we leave Cora journeying once more, heading who knows where, hoping to find who knows what. There is no promise in this ending; but she has survived, so far, and that is something.

Victoria Hoyle’s piece is similarly upbeat about the ending and stresses the powerful symbolism contained in the idea of the underground railroad having been built by escaped slaves. While I took this passing reference to the construction of the railroad to be symptomatic of the deeply hypocritical white activists, Victoria chooses to see it as a metaphorical representation of collective action and how generations of political activists have worked themselves to death in order to facilitate the emancipation of their fellows:

It’s a manifestation of the countless unnamed people who fought for the freedom of slaves and the civil rights of African Americans, and a recognition of the real change wrought – to the body of the earth itself – by kindness, compassion and individual actions in the name of justice.  Whitehead’s answer to the question of change places emphasis on the potential for positive outcomes through the work of many hands.

Nick Hubble’s piece — on the other hand — is even darker than mine in that he sees Cora’s journey not so much as an incomplete march towards freedom as a spiralling drift through a series of oppressive delusions:

The Underground Railroad is a novel of our times but it also shows that our times are just the latest ‘state’ in which a deeper, darker scheme has reformulated itself. For an America that more clearly manifests its delusional status by the day, Whitehead offers the hope of escape for those prepared to become flaws in the system and to direct their practical resistance to the collective task of tunnelling to a different future.


One thing I have enjoyed about the Shadow Clarke’s coverage of Underground Railroad is that, despite having been written in almost complete isolation, all of our reviews seem to be in agreement. In fact, the only real point of difference between the reviews lies in our respective attitudes towards political change: Victoria is hopeful, Nick is pessimistic, Paul is pragmatic, and I am annoyed that it doesn’t end with violent insurrection. Another really cool thing about the coverage is that we all agree that Underground Railroad is a science fiction novel, which got me thinking about the process of ‘claiming’ genre novels published in the mainstream:





The cultural politics of recognising mainstream novelists who write genre novels is a lot more complex than you’d think… When the commercial foundations of contemporary science fiction were laid back in the 1920s, editors like Hugo Gernsback chose to make their magazines look more like works of popular science than conventional literature. Since then, the changing commercial fortunes of genre literature have seen its inhabitants shuffle back and forth between a desire for mainstream recognition and an outright rejection of mainstream literary aesthetics: At one end of the spectrum, we have Harlan Ellison proclaiming the death of science fiction as a distinct literary tradition in his introduction to Dangerous Visions. At the other end, we have the author and editor Lester del Rey demanding that academics ‘get out of his ghetto’ on the grounds that science fiction needs to make its own creative choices and remain independent of the literary establishment.

The relationship between genre and mainstream cultures varies according to the complex orbital dynamics of both commercial fields but the resulting sets of attitudes are never monolithic. There are always corners of each respective culture that are more-or-less open to works from other fields and authors who are more-or-less acceptable to the institutions of different cultures. Fashions and commercial realities may change the ambient attitude but there will always be individual works that cross the boundary between sub-cultures and so pose a challenge to genre commentators.

As Lester del Rey’s historic comments suggest, genre culture has something of an inferiority complex and this leads to a profoundly ambivalent set of attitudes towards the cultural mainstream. Desperate for legitimacy, the first impulse of genre culture is always to ‘claim’ mainstream novels that contain genre tropes but these minor acts of appropriation are always complicated by the fact that many authors are reluctant to be tarred with the genre brush. Having someone like Margaret Atwood explicitly reject genre aesthetics after having been claimed results in a greater wound than simply being ignored and so genre culture tends to be quite careful in its selection of reclaimed works and those acts of reclamation that do take place are often framed in terms that are almost theatrically flattering to genre authors who don’t cross-over to mainstream audiences. For example, works like The Road and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union were praised for both the quality of their prose and the freshness of their ideas but their quality was often presented as a form of primitive exoticism grounded in the assumption that mainstream writers are assumed to be unfamiliar with the latest advances in genre writing and so are viewed as re-inventing the science-fictional wheel in order to tell genre stories. The willingness of genre institutions to recognise mainstream authors is also socially mediated as authors like Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, and David Mitchell are more easily claimed given that they have histories of engaging directly with genre literature and the institutions that have grown up around it. While this may make genre culture sound almost hopelessly parochial, the same process also operates in the opposite direction as evidenced by the hilarious episode of the American radio show Bookworm in which Michael Silverblatt took the almost unprecedented step of finding a translator to help him interview Jeff VanderMeer.

Given the unanimous nature of the praise for Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, it is not surprising that attempts have been made to claim it as one of ‘ours’. While Whitehead may or may not be averse to being celebrated as a science fiction writer, attempts to claim The Underground Railroad are complicated by the fact that the book is a genuine edge case in that it uses a number of techniques common to genre narratives but without ever adopting any unambiguously genre elements such as magic, alternate universes, or a futuristic setting.

It is interesting to note that the question ‘But is it science fiction?’ was an absolute mainstay of genre commentary as recently as a decade ago but it is now rarely (if ever) asked. While the disappearance of an important critical consideration is mainly a product of the amalgamation of once-separate genre audiences, it is also a result of the progressive marginalisation of non-professional voices as genre taxonomies are less important to genre writers than they are to genre readers.

Ask an author for their opinion about genre boundaries and they will give you an answer that speaks to their creative and commercial interests: Authors would like to write without impediment and sell their work to as many readers as possible. The problem is that genre classification does not exist for the sake of authors but for the sake of the people who are going to be walking into bookshops in search of novels that will scratch particular itches. Obviously, it has always been possible to ‘do’ different things within particular genres but if a work is claimed as science-fictional then the suggestion is that it scratches the same kinds of itches as other science-fictional works. Edge-cases are interesting as while they scratch the same kinds of itches as other works of science fiction, they also scratch itches that science fiction readers might never have known they had. We ask the question ‘But is it science fiction?’ not to exclude or demean but to flag particular works as being of potential interest to particular kinds of genre readers and of potential influence to particular kinds of genre writers.





No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: