February 27, 2017
If you’re looking for a dystopian alternate history of the United States in which the alternate U.S. ends up disturbingly close to reality (because what else could you be looking for right now?), this is your book. In Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, Lincoln was assassinated on his way to Washington, D.C. in 1861, the Civil War was avoided by a deal with the devil, and slavery still exists in contemporary America in four “hard” southern states, as well as in offshore security zones. Because of international sanctions imposed on the non-slave-owning states of the union, the U.S. economy is suffering—with the exception of the slave states, in which slavery props up a massively profitable oligarchy. A modern-day Underground Railroad, now called the Underground Airlines, has arisen to help escaped slaves reach freedom in Canada.
The persistence of slavery and the racial tensions fueled by contemporary fugitive slave laws, which make everyone complicit in the capture and return of escaped slaves, have made race the dominant force in Winters’ fictional America. There’s no such thing as “Diet Racism” (as a recent comedy sketch termed it) in this story. Here, as in the real America, race gets inextricably intertwined with class, with destitute inner city “Freedmen Towns” standing in for our urban “ghettos.” Unlike in our America, though, where many citizens sanguinely ignore race as the major issue it really is, everyone in Winters’ America is constantly assaulted by checkpoints, special passes, race-driven economics, and slavery-related headlines. Despite the inevitable divergences between fiction and reality, though, every time some detail in the book struck me as particularly unreal, another detail—or even the same detail later in the story—struck me as uncannily real, or at least not that far-fetched.
In some ways, the corporate-centered political system depicted in the novel is even closer to reality than its race-driven culture and politics. Just as most American consumers know vaguely that the clothes and other goods they purchase may be made by sweatshop, child, or even slave labor, but continue to make the same purchasing decisions, the consumers in Winters’ alternate present want less expensive goods, even if that means propping up the slave systems of the hard four states. The corporations themselves are in bed with the state and federal governments, and the fugitive slave laws are basically extravagant taxpayer-funded worker-retention programs.
I won’t spoil the story itself, but suffice it to say that it’s a solid mystery/thriller/chase narrative told in engaging first-person voice with enough individualized distillations of the larger themes to make the characters compelling. The story also offers enough unexpected twists and turns to keep you on your toes, and the writing is crisp. The best thing Underground Airlines does is to humanize the possibilities of a world that is in some ways fundamentally distinct—and in other ways, not so very different—from the one we’ve made for ourselves in the real world. At one point, the novel’s narrator says, “Wickedness is a weed and does not wither on its own.” This encapsulates the book’s message perfectly: We as Americans can’t stop weeding, because if we do, the good things we’re trying to grow will be ruined.