Underground Airlines By Ben H. Winters
Mulholland Books, 2016; 327 pp
Reviewed By Jordan Williams
Ben Winters’ latest mystery/thriller, Underground Airlines, is set in an America that never fought its Civil War. In the novel, a long series of political compromises between North and South allow slavery to continue to the present day. This is counterintuitive, to say the least. The novel requires that readers imagine a Confederacy that responds to the 1861 assassination of President-elect Abraham Lincoln by abandoning its rebellion and seeking a compromise that would place hard limits on the legality of slavery. Winters’ characters inhabit a world in which assassinations have the effect of cowing those politicians who would oppose slavery into softening their positions. This violence emboldens slaveowners, but never to the point that they consider negotiations to be a zero sum game. They accept that slavery will be profitable enough with mild regulatory oversight.
As Winters imagines an America that has preserved the worst of its traditions, he also imagines that this prevents the nation from ever claiming a role as the world’s primary moral authority. In Underground Airlines, modern-day America suffers the international community’s righteous scorn and is subject to economic sanctions and trade embargoes. In a dramatic reversal, slavery begins to stunt the nation’s growth. The U.S. must import cars from Pakistan and South Africa. Abolitionist Mexicans essentially retake Texas and the Black Panthers thrive as a revolutionary organization. Slavery is preserved. White supremacy is preserved. But many of the advantages of these systems are not.
Winters doesn’t fully render the international order in his alternate timeline. There’s no sense of who the world’s superpower is, in military or economic terms. In this way, his world feels incomplete, but that’s probably just as well. The novel is already burdened by dozens of alternate history lessons, some of which unfold in confusing ways. For example, we know the alternate fates of James Brown and Jesse Owens in this timeline but, significantly, not of Harriet Tubman or Malcolm X.
At this point, I have to discuss the crudeness with which the novel racializes its characters. Some characterizations are conspicuously blunt: “I loved Ada’s face. It was wide, with a strong African nose and a broad forehead.” Black characters sport afros and dreadlocks, listen to rap, and use soulful catchphrases: “He slow-danced with the word, pulling the vowel sound out like taffy: Shiiiiiiit.” The novel establishes blackness mostly in ways that are exterior. This isn’t to say that some black characters don’t exhibit interior complexity, but sympathy for enslaved blacks (and skepticism of free whites) is used too often as a substitute for blackness.
As the novel’s title suggests, its plot revolves around the quest for physical freedom. Although the plight of escaped slaves lends itself to the kind of intrigue and treachery that makes for an exciting story, Underground Airlines falls short in its handling of racial matters. Ripped from the context of our actual history, its characters don’t connect meaningfully to their own timeline. They know and recite history but don’t sufficiently demonstrate the ways in which their lives and identities are forged by it. This places the novel in stark contrast to Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which sends a modern woman back in time to live with her enslaved ancestors. History is not intimate in Underground Airlines, and the novel suffers as a result.