Review by Kris Vyas-Myall
The Old Drift was a book I had on my radar for a while, hearing very positive buzz from the literary book community. However, I was surprised to hear it turn up on the Clarke Award shortlist as I didn’t realize it had a speculative element.
Reading through it now I see that, whilst it may not be an obvious element, what the book is trying to do is very much a tale of speculative fiction. It is about the history of Zambia but also about where it is going in the future. It is about a family coming through changing times but also about how science changes society for better or worse.
Whether it is the combination of technologies that leads to the colonial project or the short lived attempt for a Zambian space project, the experimentation on black people for vaccines or nanotechnology, this does what the best science fiction should do. Tell us how the changing world is going to affect ordinary people and use it as a lens to explore the issues of our times.
It should also be noted there is some careful sprinkling of magical realism in here as characters will display unusual attributes which act as clever metaphors for what is happening in their lives, along with making more general points about the treatment of African women in some cases.
This book covers a huge span of characters, time and concepts for a 600 page novel, and yet Serpell manages to ensure it never feels dense or crowded. She is a master of prose managing to dance between bitter irony, polemic and technothriller in a short space without you even noticing the change.
One of the great challenges of reviewing such a complex book is that I do not want to give away too much detail, it is an experience that you need to have for yourself. Not one that a less skilled writer, like myself, should attempt to explain here.
A good comparison on this would be The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which won the Clarke in 2017. For some that is a work of literary historical fiction, for others it is the perfect encapsulation of what science fiction should set out to do. Whichever way you end up reading this, it is one you should seek out. It is the first book from an extremely talented writer, and I hope Serpell becomes just as well known as Whitehead in the future.