Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bound to the Past: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is an interesting alternate history set in a modern day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal in four states, aka "the Hard Four."  It's also written in a sort of thriller/mystery/noir style, which makes for fun reading.

The main character is known by many names while none of them seem to be his real name, somewhat like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (this is no surprise as Ellison is mentioned in the book, or at least an alternate history version of Ellison).

It's hard to say much about this book without spoilers, but I will say that it involves US Marshals who search for escaped slaves in non-slave states (most of the book takes place in Indianapolis), a daring mission to an Alabama slave-holding company, and enough plans within plans that you need to pay attention to catch them all.

Readers looking for aviation heroics may be disappointed that there are no actual airlines, but then it's worth remembering that "underground railroad" was a metaphor in the 19th century, too.  Amusingly enough, Winters finds a way to work in a literal underground railroad at one point.

The Philosophy Report: Cross-Temporal Moral Causation

I found the alternate history aspect most interesting with regard to what has changed and what has stayed the same in this alternate world of 2010's America.  We still have cell phones and the internet, although some technologies don't seem quite as advanced due to international sanctions against the US.  Presidents like Nixon and Johnson served, although they presided over a war closer to home than Vietnam.  Celebrities like Michael Jackson and James Brown existed, but with minor changes.

If anything, I was a bit shocked at how little is different in this world.  I would imagine that monumental events like the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery would send greater ripples through the subsequent 150 years, probably enough to make that world entirely unrecognizable.

But maybe this relatively similar world was Winters's point.  Of course as a writer he has to give the reader some touchstones of familiarity, but I take it his deeper point is that as a society we haven't come as far from the dismal days of slavery than we'd like to think.  The main character's trepidations as a black man even in Indiana could come from Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, or indeed many African Americans in 2017.  The descriptions of slavery in a modern technological capitalist era are truly horrifying and thankfully imagined, but maybe this is part of Winters's point as well: the legacy of slavery is still with us here in our reality.

As a white American I don't completely understand the legacies of slavery, and it's a fair question of whether a white author like Winters understands them.  I'm not saying this book is going to be a key to understanding what slavery means to the United States in 2017.  There are far better books to read if that's your goal.  (A good science fictional place to start is Octavia Butler's Kindred).

But if you push a bit deeper into the roots of this fun alternate history story, there may be some food for thought.  While the Americans that came before us saw to it that we are thankfully not in the alternate reality depicted in this novel, how far are we really from this reality?  How thin are the lines between the horrors of the past, present, and future?

Rating: 88/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. Sounds very intriguing. I may have to pick this one up. Thanks for sharing.