The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell – An Arthur C. Clarke Award book review

It is not often that I find a book nearly totally uninteresting, but The Old Drift manages to come very close. It is an ambitious book following a several families over the generations in Zambia from colonial times to the present day. It reminded my very much of a Wilbur Smith novel without white superiority.

The novel is very firmly rooted in its African setting and does a good job of drawing the reader into that world. This is on the face of it refreshing, it is great to see more novels branching out of the western world and giving us different perspectives, but I feel that Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, that won the award last year did better. It did better for one reason it was science fiction.

The Old Drift does have elements of sci-fi in it, there is a woman who has a mutation causing massive hair growth, some examination of a nascent Zambian space effort and later in the book there is some new technology called a bead, which is some kind of embedded communications technology. This tech doesn’t exist in our current time frame, so it seems the book is in an alternate universe, but this is neither clear of necessary.

The author, Namwali Serpell, is a capable writer but the generational movement leads to a under characterisation of the main cast. This cast is nuanced, none are plainly good or bad, they have human motives and human failures. Serpell has a propensity to focus on… lady’s issues throughout the book and perhaps because I am male, I found these discussions menstruation distracting. They seemed tossed in to make a point but done so often that any message was lost in the vivid description.

This may well be a fine book, it maybe ground-breaking but there were not enough science fiction elements to make it a science fiction book. I enjoy historical fiction and in many ways this book fits that genre better, or perhaps it portrays inter-generational familial relationships giving it more credence in another section of the library. I am afraid that my final feeling for this review that this book did not deserve to be shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

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