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Hard-hitting Alt-history novel – Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover.
Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover. (Classified as alternative history, thriller, detective fiction, and suspense fiction.)

Ben H. Winters wrote the acclaimed, award-winning Science Fiction series, The Last Policeman. I called the hero of the series, “Detective Hank Palace”, “the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet” –  and the detective in his latest novel Underground Airlines is another yummy crumpet. Like No. 3 in The Last Policeman trilogy, World of Trouble, Underground Airlines was also shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category, amongst other kudos. So one can safely say he knows how to write a hit and create really appealing, admirable protagonists. I was expecting something good, and was not disappointed; a polished, refined, sharp piece of alternative history writing which, due to its premise, is also a bugle call for the defence of democracy, freedom and the U.S. Constitution.

A great leading man

Underground Airlines is plotted and described with such an eye for sweeping scale and personal drama that it is a good property to be made into a film. The detective in this case is a former slave who tracks down other escaped slaves. He is like a Classical Hollywood Cinema private eye; he assumes disguises, manipulates people skillfully to get information out of them, hangs out in seedy motels, has a nose and an eye for the tracks of his prey, wrestles with his personal demons and, in the end, gets the girl! If this were not an “alternative history” novel, a sub-genre of Science Fiction, in which he skillfully does code-cracking and hacking, I could imagine him hanging out in a trench coat and hat in a smoky bar with a gal on his arm and a cigarette dangling from his lip. The novel succeeds in its major components of scene-setting and dialogue that is so convincing you can actually read it out loud and it still works. For instance, when he gets worked up, he repeats himself:

“I whistled very softly, still sitting motionless, hands still flat on the table. ’All right,’ I whispered. ‘All right, all right, all right.’” (p.17)

“’Okay’ Martha was saying. She was trembling. I was trembling, too. ‘Okay. Okay. Okay.’” (p.306)

But the main reason why this could be a movie is because there is real drama and suspense and a believable hero,  “Victor”. Victor is just one of his names, since he assumes many characters:

“I had a lot of names. Or, more precisely, it was my practice at the beginning of a new job to think of myself as having no name at all. As being not really a person at all. A man was missing, that’s all – missing and hiding, and I was not a person but a manifestation of will. I was a mechanism – a device. That’s all I was.” (p.16)

He not only helps a down-and-out woman, Martha, and her young son, but he ultimately wants to expose a major conspiracy, and endures a significant, wince-inducing amount of physical abuse to do so.

An unsettling, plausible alternative history

Map of the imaginary “Hard Four” slavery states.
Map of the imaginary “Hard Four” slavery states, from the novel.

The novel’s setting is an alternative America, where the American Civil War never occurred and where slavery is still legal in the “Hard Four” southern states, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Carolina. The other states have working relationships with the Hard Four, and when slaves escape from there, a federal agency uses former slaves like Victor as marshalls to find them and return them to their owners. The problem is that Victor has a very deep secret, namely how he ended up escaping from the Hard Four region, and this comes back to literally drive him nuts every so often. Also, his employers keep him in line by having had a tracking chip implanted in his spine, just below his brain. One word from them and he is fried. So the very efficient Victor, himself black, finds black slave after black slave, until he is told to track one who is unlike all the others, called “Jackdaw” – a white man – and then the whole works goes wrong.

Winters very convincingly depicts this America where things went differently all because of a war that never happened. As a result, the Hard Four states is like South Africa during the “Apartheid” era. For people who know South Africa, all this would resonate with them in many respects, from the states operating under embargoes, to the political, intellectual, social and religious justifications for slavery and segregation, border controls, propaganda, and the misperception of everything being peachy keen down there “where the white folks rule the black folks”. Winters depicts a plausible, chilling picture of what happens when a nation formalizes and enforces segregation, discrimination and enslavement of people:

“There was an Olympic gold medalist from Alabama, boy named Jesse Owens, who took a mess of world records in Berlin in 1936 and then defected to the Soviet Union.For the next half century he was one of the evil empire’s prize possessions, turning up in Pravda every once in a while to denounce the degenerate slave-state capitalism.” (p.81)

Hopefully everyone would know that Jesse Owens’ life turned out differently from this fiction, as does the life of Abraham Lincoln, and the writing of the Constitution and the United States’ withdrawal from the United Nations in 1973, to the delight of the British UN representative – and any other historical events and people. The alternative history is cleverly and slickly merged with the events in Victor’s descent into the very hell he escaped from.

He has flashbacks to the time when he was a child and he had only one friend and protector, a slave boy two years older than him called “Castle”, who got it into Victor’s head that he could be free, and that there were “[…] two worlds, this world and another one, us now and us later, what we are and what we are going to be”. (p.321)

“Castle’s eyes would get so wide in the dark. Castle’s bright and beautiful white eyes, like twin planets. His eyes were all I could see when it was just Castle and me under our shared blanket, on our shared cot, in our cabin, which was the one closest to the northernmost chain fence.” (p.60)

Castle calls him “honey” and “love”, and at night secretly teaches him vocabulary and what he knows about the world. When Victor finds a piece of anti-slavery literature in the stomach of the cow carcass in the meat-packing plant where he works as a slave, Castle is terrified that they will be discovered and tells Victor he destroyed it:

“Castle forgot to wake me that night, but my body woke itself, and I saw him. I never told him that I had seen him, but I did. I saw him like a vision, clinging to that single sheet of sheet of goldenrod, staring at it in the darkness with his big white eyes.” (p.62)

It finally emerges what Victor had done to Castle to make his escape, and it is heart-breaking, a moment so ruthlessly direct and graphically depicted that it makes you shiver.

The underground airlines

There is of course no “underground airline” – with reference to the underground railroad of the actual American Civil War:

“No man – Underground Airlines is a figure of speech: it’s the root of a grand, extended metaphor, ‘pilots’ and ‘stewards’ and ‘baggage handlers’ and ‘gate agents’. Connecting flights and airport security. The Airline flies on the ground, in package trucks and unmarked vans and stolen tractor-trailers.” (p.97)

In a truck, well and truly “packaged” with human waste, is how Jackdaw escapes the slave farm, but Victor gets back into Alabama by sitting quietly with Martha, a white woman, as her innocuous and mute “colored in the car” at the border crossing. They are there to find evidence that Jackdaw was supposed to have smuggled out, and also find Martha’s husband on the computer system of the enormous operation “GGSI”(“Garments of the Greater South Inc.”) – motto: ‘American Grown, Southern Sewn!” (Clever!) Victor’s discoveries allows him to buy his freedom, if he is not double-crossed every which way by every man and his dog.

In the end Victor addresses Castle as “darling”, and the reader finally understands how high the price of his freedom had been.

Food for thought – the Crittenden Compromise

The novel, like all good books, makes you think. It is smooth, polished, well-edited and sharply observed, and is a fast, enjoyable read. But its message is serious; Winters says, look you, what could happen to those freedoms you so take for granted, that you feel so entitled to. A signature on a legal document can undo it all. He quotes the very real, fortunately unsuccessful “Crittenden Compromise” of 1860, in the epigraph of the novel. I did not understand its significance until I had read the entire novel, had gone back to the epigraph, and done some fact-checking.

A fake news front page - The Boston Globe’s version of non-fiction “alternative history”, referenced by Ben Winters on his website. Note the small print on the bottom: “Editor’s note - This is Donald Trump’s America. What you read on this page is what might happen if the GOP front­run­ner can put his ideas into practice, his words into action. Many Americans might find this vision appealing, but the Globe’s editorial board finds it deeply troubling. Read our editorial on Page K2 for more on the dangers of Trump’s vision.” Well, it is now President Trump.
A fake news front page – The Boston Globe’s version of non-fiction “alternative history, or “counterfacts” that Ben Winters refers to on his website. Note the small print on the bottom: “Editor’s note – This is Donald Trump’s America. What you read on this page is what might happen if the GOP front­run­ner can put his ideas into practice, his words into action. Many Americans might find this vision appealing, but the Globe’s editorial board finds it deeply troubling. Read our editorial on Page K2 for more on the dangers of Trump’s vision.”  This image was created in March 2016.

The Crittenden Compromise proposed amendments to the American constitution that would have guaranteed the permanent existence of slavery in the slave states and addressed Southern demands in regard to fugitive slaves and slavery in the District of Columbia. It proposed extending the Missouri Compromise line to the west, with slavery prohibited north of the 36° 30′ parallel and guaranteed south of it. The compromise included a clause that it could not be repealed or amended. Scary stuff. However, Winters calls this amendment the 18th one, which in reality, prohibited the manufacturing or sale of alcohol within the United States, while the actual 13th amendment (out of 33 amendments) was the one that abolished slavery, and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

Winters’ frightening alternative amendment reads:

“No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles [the Crittenden amendments to the Constitution] … and no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize of give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted.”

The aim of the novel

This is hard-hitting stuff, and becomes more so the longer you digest the novel. Like many well-conceived and executed alternative history fiction, the premise is interesting and discomforting, and the execution is excellent. As Winters himself puts it on his website:…fiction has a special power to clarify, galvanize, prophesy, and warn”.

He, and other writers of alternative history novels, “…are interested in what the world would look like—what it would feel like—if X had happened instead of Y”, Winters writes. “For many of us, X happened on Nov. 8 of last year [2016, when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States]. Somehow, while we were refreshing Nate Silver and wondering how Biden was going to do at the State Department, we fell through a trapdoor into an alternate dimension.”

Winters’s vision of a different America in Underground Airlines includes many aspects that are currently in the news and being hotly debated during the first days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, making it uncannily prescient – inter-racial violence, segregation and border control, racial inequality and prejudice, mass incarceration, etc. Winters wrote the novel with a very clear intention: “The novel rose out of my powerful and sad sense of all the ways the shadow of slavery hangs over our country. All the institutions and attitudes that were shaped during those centuries are still with us. […] I thought that maybe literalizing the metaphor — changing “in a way slavery is still with us” to “slavery is still with us” would be a compelling way to think about the world.” (From an interview with Winters in The Undefeated, by Jesse Washington.)

Fortuitous release dates

On Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, the Canadian band Austra, with lead singer Katie Stelmanis, released their third album, Future Politics. As Stelmanis pointed out in a live interview on CBC Radio 1, you might think that she planned the release to coincide with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, but it’s actually just a fortuitous coincidence. Fortuitous, since the lyrics of the album pretty much express the band members’ criticism of Pres. Trump’s political style. However, that correlation is neither intended nor what Stelmanis wants listeners to hear. She wants her music judged on its own merit.

The timing of the release of Winters’ novel is also fortuitous, though it makes his alt-history less radical and shocking than it could have been. He probably hopes that the confluence of world events won’t lessen the impact of his novel and its ability to warn and galvanize.

About the author

Ben Winters

No. 1 in Ben H. Winters’s trilogy, The Last Policeman, called The Last Policeman, won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in the category Best Paperback Original; was an Amazon Best Book of 2012; and was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Mystery by Mystery Readers International. No. 2, Countdown City, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2013 in the Science Fiction category. No. 3, World of Trouble, was nominated for the Edgar Award in the category of Best Paperback Original and for the Anthony Award. His latest, Underground Airlines, was also shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2016 in the Science Fiction category. More information on Ben H. Winters, the list of accolades for Underground Airlines, and his other books, is here:

His blog is here:

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