Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Whitehead, Colson

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1970-    ) US author, much of whose work is nonfantastic, though his first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), hovers Equipoisally between Alternate History and Fabulation in its depiction of two groups of elevator operators in conflict as to the metaphysical nature of the elevator as such; one faction plans to build an elevator unfettered to the empirical past, which will take its people – in this case Black Americans – into the future. Zone One (2011) is a Near Future Post-Holocaust tale also set in New York; the Zone of the title, comprising lower Manhattan where the banks cluster, has been walled off from the rest of the metropolis, and is slowly being "cleansed" of the Zombies created by a worldwide Pandemic. The protagonist, who is Black, may remind readers of the protagonist of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which Zone One homages in other ways as well. At one point, a secondary character reflects upon the Statue of Liberty, and uses the term "suppurating" to describe the huddled masses to whom she promises sanctuary: ironically underlining the Paranoia attendant upon much earlier zombie literature, where immigrants and members of other races were seen as threatening the health of the body politic. The novel closes in desolation and rage. The bankers (a favourite target of zombie Satire in the early twenty-first century) are saved. Though ostensibly nonfiction, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death (2014) is a gonzo Satire of modern American life, seen through the distorting lens of professional poker; the author identifies himself as a citizen of The Republic of Anhedonia.

The first chapters of The Underground Railroad (2016) are set in a searingly depicted 1840s antebellum American South, a world dominated by a devastatingly explicit rendering of the obscene effects of Slavery on its victims, and whose terrors seem to offer no escape from prison except for the existence of the railroad of the title, which runs literally Underground, and is described in terms verging edgily into Steampunk. The protagonist is transported by this railroad initially to South Carolina, where she is put in an anthropological Zoo and comes close to being dragooned into a sterilization programme proleptically based on the Tuskegee-experiment atrocities committed on Afro-Americans a century later in the name of Eugenics. Her later travels – increasingly conveyed with an abstracted intensity typical of allegory (see Mainstream Writers of SF) – are less subject to the exposures of Fantastika, though in fact the exemplary versions of Americans she encounters – over the course of what has become a sustained Fantastic Voyage through an Archipelago of exemplary sites (see Islands) – accumulatively generate a palimpsest portrayal of the self-exculpating Dream of America: even darker than the devastated world gradually unfolded as Huck goes down river in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain. The Underground Railroad won the 2016 US National Book Award, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award. A Television version of the tale, The Underground Railroad (2021, 10 episodes) written and directed by Barry Jenkins, floods Whitehead's harsh anatomy with a sensory richness that comes excitingly close to overload. [JC]

Colson A Whitehead

born New York: 11 September 1970

works (selected)



previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies