Thursday, September 29, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Ever since I read Ben Winters' pre-apocalyptic mystery-thriller The Last Policeman trilogy (The Last PolicemanCountdown City and World of Trouble) last year I have been something of a fanboy of this speculative fiction author. I was VERY psyched when I learned that his first book published after The Last Policeman was going to be called Underground Airlines and set in an America with an alternate history where slavery persists to the 21st century and based around a modern analogue of the Civil War-era Underground Railroad. 

Underground Airlines is out now and clearly has an incredibly compelling premise. The alternate history is based around a seminal event which bifurcates Winters' fictional timeline from ours: the assassination of President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and the subsequent "grand compromise" which defuses the tension between the states that in our timeline led to the Civil War. The ratification of five constitutional amendments have the effect of maintaining slavery because they allow every state in the Union to determine its slaveholding status, and includes a fiendishly clever clause which prevents the enactment of any future amendment to the Five Compromise amendments, cementing slavery into the fabric of our nation forever.

Most familiar historical events that occurred in our timeline (e.g. 9/11, Michael Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt) also occurred in the timeline of Underground Airlines but there are some fascinating (and horrifying) ways that the absence of the Civil War from our past has warped the timeline presented in Underground Airlines

Interestingly, it's not the entire South which has legalized slavery (or the preferred term "Person Bound to Labor") in the modern era. Slavery is alive, well and bureaucratized in the Hard Four: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Carolina (North Carolina and South Carolina are reunited).

While Underground Airlines has an amazing premise, it also has a VERY complicated protagonist. He is a former slave named Victor who is now working (via coercion) for the U.S. Marshal's Service as an undercover agent to locate escaped slaves in the North and return them to involuntary servitude. Victor is a very problematic character (and in my mind, not very sympathetic). [This may be a feature of main characters in Ben Winters novels--the titular cop in The Last Policeman is also an anti-heroic figure.] Victor's circumstances are almost excessively complicated; he is in Indianapolis, Indiana looking for an escaped slave named Jackdaw when he runs into a troubled young white female with an adorable young African-American son whose future becomes entangled with his. Through the machinations of the (somewhat convoluted) plot, Victor becomes a double agent and perhaps  even a triple agent as he gets sucked into a particular situation that involves searching for a "mcguffin" which could potentially have a devastating impact on the rotten institution of slavery. However, to do so requires Victor to travel to the Hard Four which leads to some of the most harrowing and pulse-pounding scenes in the book.

Overall, despite my misgivings and issues with the main character, the setting of the book provides author Ben Winters with multiple opportunities to include mordant, thought-provoking commentary about race, class and history in our society which elevates Underground Airlines above the multitude of other media sources of entertainment which compete for our attention but ultimately fail to resonate as strongly with the conscience and memory of the reader.

Title: Underground Airlines.
Ben H. Winters.
Paperback: 336 pages.
 Mulholland Books.
Date Published: July 15, 2016.
Date Read: September 27, 2016.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


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