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Review: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

By / December 7, 2016 / no comments

… that’s just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you want to draw the heat

Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”



It is 40 years since our latest Nobel laureate pointed out the running sore in the American body politic. It wasn’t new then, and it’s only got worse since. Think Ferguson, think a black boy killed by police for playing with a toy gun, think an unarmed black man being shot in the back as he ran away from the cop who was then filmed planning a weapon beside the body. Think how the recent elections have legitimized racial discrimination and violence so that we are seeing more and more of it. It has never been far below the surface, but there are times when it wells up like a suppurating wound. And that wound was made by slavery. Slavery meant that right from the birth of the nation America was never the free, fair, equal, morally pure country it imagined itself to be; and the only cure for slavery was the devastating violence of the Civil War, which meant that for a significant portion of the country equality was equated with defeat. It is now 150 years since that war ended, but it has never really gone away, and nor has slavery which remains a raw, diseased and bitter thing lodged in the soul of America.


And that inextricable connection between the legacy of slavery and the ongoing experience of being black in America is at the heart of two of the most significant works of science fiction published this year. I will return in a future post to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but for now let me turn to Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

Both books take their title from the loose, ad hoc association of free blacks, escaped slaves and some white abolitionists that, in the years before the Civil War found ways of spiriting runaway slaves from safe house to safe house until they reached relative security. This often meant Canada, since the Fugitive Slave Act meant that there was no absolute security within the United States, which is why the bravest of the conductors on the underground railway were themselves escaped slaves who remained to help their fellows on the same route.

By their titles, therefore, these two books betoken betoken freedom, escape, bravery and release; but there is little of any of that in the novels.

Underground Airlines, in particular, is suffused with an air of permanent entrapment; time and again we are told in as many words that nothing can get better, nothing can improve, the common indifference of people means that whatever may happen things will remain pretty much as they are. And in the novel, that means that slavery continues.

This is a fairly straightforward alternate history. Lincoln was assassinated before he could even reach Washington for his first inauguration. In the aftermath, the Senate crafts a compromise that allows the slave states to remain part of the union. The previous half-century, during which the United States had expanded across the continent, had seen compromise after compromise between slave and free states. These compromises had always favoured the slaveholders, and had always fallen apart over time; this latest compromise was no different. Over time, several states had been persuaded to renounce slavery, but in the novel’s present there are still four slaveholding states, and these four states still hold the whip hand, economically and politically, over the rest of the country. The free states have enacted laws to keep slavery at arm’s length, but these are mostly not enforced. A politician pushing for major anti-slavery legislation is assassinated to no-one’s great surprise. The repulsion that the rest of the world feels towards slavery means that the whole country has suffered economically, but ironically this means that the slave economies are actually richer.

It is a well-structured, well-considered and convincing portrait of how America would be if slavery continued into the modern world. Against this backdrop, Winters has constructed an efficient thriller plot that touches all the bases and allows us to see most of these background details in action.

Victor – it’s not his name, but then he doesn’t really have a name, that absence of identity is part of the point of the story – was a slave who escaped, but he was caught by a government agency who coerced him into working for them. So now he spends his days working for a voice at the other end of the telephone; and what he does for that voice is capture runaway slaves and return them to slavery. He’s not exactly free, but then, he’s more free than the poor souls he tracks down. He’s good at his job, and he’s also good at justifying his actions to himself. But then, so is everyone else; slavery, it is implied, is all about lying to yourself, about refusing to acknowledge the truth, because recognising the truth of slavery would be more morally compromising than lying to yourself.

His latest mission seems much like any other, except that there are curious gaps in the paperwork. And the more he investigates, the more those gaps start to bother him. There is something odd about this particular runaway, and eventually Victor realises that the runaway has access to vitally important information. Nobody quite knows what this information is, but the underground airline that is helping the runaway believes it could bring down slavery, and so does the government, who want to find that information and destroy it. Victor is caught in the middle. Whatever the information is, he doesn’t believe it will bring down slavery; it might provoke some short-lived outrage, some knee-jerk laws, but in the long run everything would carry on pretty much as before. However, it might provide a key to his own personal freedom.

Which is how come Victor ends up going back down south, a black man back in the land of slaves and of his childhood, in an attempt to recover that key.

Like any thriller, there are problems with the plot, conveniences and coincidences that never quite ring true. The white woman who befriends Victor at the beginning of the novel and ends up accompanying him on his quixotic journey south, goes from being beaten-down by life to being quick-witted, resourceful and daring as the plot demands. Rather more troubling is the problem of a novel about the black experience written by a white author. I’m hesitant to use the word appropriation, but at the same time the scenes in the south amid actual slavery seem more antiseptic and distanced than those set in the economically depressed and routinely racist north. The only slaves we see are either secretly in control of their household, or else we see only an undifferentiated mass. At several important points in the plot Victor finds himself reliant on the unexpected intervention of whites. And in the portrait of Victor, there is something deeply romantic about the way he is both cynical about everything yet always chooses the morally right course of action. In other words, it can all too often feel that we are seeing Victor’s blackness, and the dehumanizing nature of his experiences, always from the outside.

That said, this is still a viscerally disturbing novel, a gripping and thought-provoking tale, that seems ever more relevant as the events of 2016 unfold.


Buy Underground Airlines at Amazon.

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