Zambia’s Namwali Serpell has won the UK’s top prize for science fiction, the Arthur C Clarke award, for her first novel “The Old Drift”.
The Zambian author’s first novel — a mix of historical fiction, magical realism and sci-fi — 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.
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.
According to analysis by Clarke judge and author Stewart Hotston, Namwali Serpell 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.
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.”
Namwali Serpell is a writer and critic who currently teaches at UC Berkeley, where she is an associate professor of English. Her first published story, “Muzungu,” was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2009 and shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award in 2011. In 2015 her short story “The Sack” won the Caine Prize for African fiction in English. And in 2020, Namwali Serpell got consecrated by the Grand Prix of Literary Associations 2019, for her work entitled The Old Drift.