Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead |2017 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist Post #1

The 2017 Clarke Award has been announced at the beginning of May and, like I did last year, I want to read the entire shortlist which shouldn’t be too hard since I already read some of the shortlisted books!

If you have not seen the shortlist already, here it is:

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
  • Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • After Atlas by Emma Newman
  • A Close and Common Orbit by Beckie Chambers
  • Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

My goal is to read the shortlist before July 27th when the winner will be announced. I read Central Station and Ninefox Gambit last year and I would like to re-read them for this project though I don’t know if I’ll have the time to re-read Ninefox Gambit (since I already read it twice before I even knew it was going to be shortlisted!).

Anyway, enough rambles, let’s review The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead!


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Genre: Historical Fiction, Alternate History

Publisher: Doubleday Books

Length: 306 pages

Format: eBook

Rating: 5 stars

Publication Date: August 2nd 2016

 

 

Publisher’s description

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
     In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

 

Book Review

When I first saw the 2017 Clarke Shortlist, I was very suprised to see The Underground Raiload on it. This historical-fiction book just won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and since its popular release, it only heard great things about it. I have been meaning to pick up this book for a while now, expecting to read it as as historical fiction book and here I am, reviewing it as a speculative fiction work.

It’s true that if you read the synopsis, you might be surprised that this book is shortlisted for a SF prize; it features no aliens, spaceships or AIs. It’s sole “speculative traits” are that in this book the Underground Railroad is a litteral railroad that can safely transport slaves from States to States and that Whitehead plays a bit with time. Is it enough to be nominated for a SF award ? I’d say it’s just depend on your definition of speculative fiction. Is it reading about aliens, space battles and cyborgs or is to see how humans confronted to new, original situations or concerns can actually deal with them?

For some people, Star Trek is a geeky, cheesy and way to old TV shows about pointed-earred people with odd eyebrows dealing with aliens, but, for me, it’s about people coming together trying to solve problems and discover new things. It’s about humans and how society could be. That’s SF for me.

So, with this definition in mind, why not consider The Underground Railroad SF ?

 

The Underground Railroad opens on the Randall plantations in Georgia where being a slave means being constantely aggressed, beaten, raped for no reasons other than the color of your skin. The first part might be the most shocking part for some, Colson Whitehead write torture, agression and castration scenes in a detached, almost causal way, showing us that, at the time, those weren’t shocking for people: it was just part of their reality.

For some people, it might be too much to handle, I have seen reviews were people said the writing didn’t work for them because they couldn’t relate to the characters because of the very detached tone and attitude of the characters. How can they just stand there doing nothing? I read this kind of statement in many reviews, for a lot of people , Cora, the main character is “hard to like”, “keeping them at bay” etc… In a way, I can see that but for me, it’s done on purpose, it’s not that she doesn’t care, it’s just that she can’t. Else how could you live in a world like that?

The Underground is brutal, messy and doesn’t hold back, even when you wished it did. It’s hard but you can’t stop reading, it shows you humanity as its worst, and, more, it shows us people trying to survive, as bystanders, slavers or slaves.

The majority of the book is focused on Cora as she flees with Caesar, another slave, from States to States, trading a kind of slavery against another, as she experiences the horror of being black in a country that’s scared of you and that is trying to make you as quiet as possible while slowly pushing you over the edge. However, we also get chapters from other perspectives like the perspective of the slaver who pursues Cora, a medicine student, a woman who helps Cora and her reasoning behind it.

We follow Cora as she perpetualy escape through the USA but also through time. Indeed, if I understood the book correctly, it doesn’t exactly follows the course of history and attempts to show the different ways in which black people were discriminated throughout history. For example, when Cora reaches South Carolina she realizes that, if “on paper” she is not a slave anymore, she is still treated like one by white people that want to use her. Indeed, doctors try to sterilize her against her consent because it is the only way they find to control the growth of the black population in their State.

 

The Underground Railroad is not a pleasant book but it is an important one because it is very relevant to our own society . I have seen a few people comparing this book to Arcadia by Iain Pears, a book that was shortlisted last year. I think their only shared trait is that Iain Pears is also a literary fiction writer but except that, don’t expect both books to be similar, they are extremely different in what they are trying to achieve.

I finished this book almost two weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about it, I am glad it has been shortlisted because it pushed me to finally read it and, as much as it is a very subtle speculative fiction book, I do think it deserves the spot. So far, I have read half of the shortlist, Ninefox Gambit, Central Station and obviously this book and I am impressed. (I would have loved to see Europe in Winter in it but we can’t all get what we want…)

Anyway, have you read The Underground Railroad? Do you think it’s a SF book and that it “deserves” to be shortlisted for one of the biggest award of the genre?

 

 

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