Title: Underground Airlines
Rating: 4 Stars
This is an action / mystery wrapped up inside of a counterfactual.
Winters re-imagines a world in which slavery still exists in the United States. This is an interesting challenge because, at its core, it’s pretty tough to imagine a realistic scenario in which this could be true. How do you conjure a reality in which the South does not see the election of Abraham Lincoln as an attack upon their cherished institution and immediately start to secede? How do you erase the enormous material and manpower advantage that the North had over the South? How do you resolve the implacable will that Abraham Lincoln had to keep the South from tearing the union asunder?
In a previous counterfactual fiction (The Guns of the South) that I read many years ago, Harry Turtledove actually resorted to having apartheid South Africa invent a time machine and give the rebels AK-47’s and ammunition from the future. Armed with firepower that far exceeded the unionists, the rebels successfully gain their freedom. The South Africans hopes to have a Confederacy that would align with their values in the future is ultimately thwarted.
In Winter’s counterfactual, there is no such chicanery. Lincoln is almost immediately assassinated after elected. A shocked nation hurriedly comes to a compromise consensus that allows the South to continue its slavery practices but constrains it from growing. Thus the Civil War is avoided.
Now in present day, slavery is still an institution. Over time, slavery has disappeared in most states. In fact, it now exists only in four states, the so called Hard Four. However, the United States has paid a price for this. It’s now universally considered a pariah nation due to its continuing slavery. Export and imports have largely dried up due to international boycotts. Americans can only get inferior products from countries like Pakistan and South Africa. Just recently, a ten year war with Texas had been fought to a standstill due to that state’s disgust with slavery. Even in the North, blacks suffer severe racism. America is an economically and spiritually bleak country.
In this milieu is Victor. Victor is an escaped slave from the Hard Four that was later captured and was forced to become a slave catcher. It’s now his job to track down the slaves that have escaped the Hard Four so that the government can capture them and ship them back down to where the slave escaped from. Victor is very good at the job but is clearly tortured by it.
He’s in Indianapolis to track down a slave named Jackdaw. What seems at first to be a fairly simple case fairly quickly becomes something else. Ultimately, Victor must go back down to the Hard Four himself, exposing himself to much danger but possibly having a chance to truly earn his freedom.
I thought that Winters did a fine job here. I was more impressed with the counterfactual aspect of his work. What would a United States look like in the year 2017 if slavery was still legal? What compromises would the people up North make to allow themselves to sleep at night (like having Clean Hands statutes (eg like organic) to keep goods coming in from the Hard Four)? How would the modern day abolitionists act? In the corporate world of the twenty-first century, how would slavery actually manifest itself? Winters makes a credible attempt to address such questions.
This is reminiscent of Winters’ other work that I’m familiar with, The Last Policeman trilogy. In those novels, a policeman is still trying to do his job as the world is coming to an end (literally; scientists have discovered that an asteroid is heading towards the planet and there is nothing that they can do about it).
In both cases, you have a situation where you have someone trying to do his job (either a policeman or what is effectively a bounty hunter) in an unimaginable situation that they essentially have no control over. The two characters are both competent at their job and doggedly are trying to do it, even as the world itself seems to be collapsing around them.
Also, in both cases, I found the setting that the plot takes place in more interesting than the plot itself. This just might be the way of Winters’ writing. He just might natively be better at conjuring up interesting world views than the actual execution of the narrative.
Regardless, I found Underground Airlines to be both engaging and thought provoking.