Chains and Darkness: Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines

In an alternate history where the Civil War never happened and the Crittenden Compromise was passed, there exists a divided United States. The North abolished slavery but African Americans are still redlined into ghettos and slums. They are free by law but oppressed by social convention, with white people satisfied with the bare minimum of compassion and Black people shamed for being unable to break out of a system designed to subjugate. Sound familiar yet? The South held onto slavery, although its reach became smaller and more consolidated. By the time Victor sets out on his mission in Underground Airlines, there are only four states left holding onto slavery, but they’re making the most of it.

Victor escaped slavery as a child but was captured by the US Marshals. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Marshals were tasked with capturing runaways, and in this fictional world that’s become their main duty. Victor is pressed into service with the Marshals and ends up being eerily good at his job. The toll it takes on his psyche is extreme, and by the time he’s sent to recover a young man named Jackdaw being hidden by a manipulative priest and his cop lackies the lockbox where he hides his anguish is beginning to crumble.

As the mysteries around Jackdaw’s case coalesce into conspiracies, Victor’s life becomes even more complicated with the arrival of Martha Flowers, a poor white woman and mother to a biracial boy named Lionel. His father was also a runaway, but when he was captured he disappeared into the hell that is the “Hard Four.” Martha needs Victor to find her husband and Victor needs Martha to get him behind the cotton curtain. Jackdaw forces Victor to confront his complicity in slavery, yet as his security fractures his resolve strengthens enough to take on a system so great the entire nation rests upon it.

This was one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever written. In fact, there’s really three different reviews layered on top of each other. On the surface is a review about a competently written alt-history with fascinating characters and challenging subject matter. Just below that is the layer where social context comes into play when it’s revealed that the author, if his recent interview with the New York Times is any indication, seems to have missed the forest for the trees when it comes to racist systems and PoC narratives.

The deepest layer is wholly personal. My ancestors were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the South. I know where the plantations were where my ancestors were held. And I know Black people today who are still shackled to a scheme devoted to the New Jim Crow. With Underground Airlines I enjoyed a fun science fiction book but I am disappointed in the author and publishing industry’s selfish intent yet I’m also moved to tears by the visceral reaction to seeing my people’s stories being told, no matter who is doing the telling.

Underground Airlines was not the kind of novel I’d expect from the dude who cranked out Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. The writing might be a hurdle depending on your tolerance for non-traditional styles—you’ll either dig the quirky choppiness as I did, or find it frustrating and pretentious. Thankfully there’s no shoehorned romance between the (only) woman in the novel and the main character.

Winters takes the plot to some very dark places and while there may be some level where Victor’s experiences are meant as shock value for the reader, the plot itself follows a fairly organic, expected path. There are parts that get lost in the weeds and there are moments where Winters pulls his punches. The section set in the North is mostly plot while in the South the action takes a backseat to social commentary. I can see some readers having trouble accommodating the two distinct tones, but for me it worked. The final act takes a sharp turn into hard science fiction that could be better set up, but overall it’s a taut, thrilling sci-fi tale built on the bones of a mystery.

Victor is a compelling main character, a man haunted by his past as a slave, desperate to regain the modicum of freedom he experienced after he escaped, and caught in a state in between captive and free. He is three-fifths of a man, a prisoner of a society that opted to ignore social conflict in favor of profits and privilege. Martha is a trickier character. Too often she ends up as a tool for Winters to demonstrate white guilt rather than as a three-dimensional character. Regardless, it’s intense to watch her confront the pervasive, corrosive racism face on, both through recognizing the limited options available to her biracial son and by having to play the part of a southern slavery supporter in a con.

I didn’t just love this book; I felt it. Victor tunneled into my brain and heart. It’s been almost a week since I finished it and my thoughts keep turning back to Victor’s ordeal. Few books have burrowed under my skin like that, but this is definitely one of them. Once Victor went to the Hard Four, I had to take destress breaks after every chapter. This isn’t just science fiction for me. This is an alternate history of my family, my culture, my people. Every day of my life is stained by 500 years of legalized torture, death, rape, and oppression. My great-great grandparents were born in slavery, my great-grandparents the first generation born free, my grandparents raised in Jim Crow, my mother fought for Civil Rights, and now I’m battling the New Jim Crow. What Victor experiences in the North we’re still dealing with today, and the trials he undergoes in the South my ancestors barely survived.

SFF is the perfect tool it for exploring socio-cultural issues. Underground Airlines teases out the major themes of America’s special brand of systematic racism by Trojan horsing them into more casual conventions. The end of the book wanders into some pretty heavy science fiction, but it’s rooted in reality. Winters hasn’t entirely succeeded in his goal, but he clearly thought through the most of the ramifications of his alt-history.

The details are extraordinary, although some of the larger questions are left untouched. The biggest omission for me was the lack of worldbuilding in the West. Outside a couple of references to Texas, the entire western half of the US is never even mentioned, yet in the real world slavery had a huge impact on the West (says the woman who wrote her MA US History thesis on Black life in the West). Southerners traveling overland often sold some of their slaves to finance their journey. Those left behind were devastated by broken homes, and after the Civil War thousands of freed slaves took out ads looking for their families; most were never reunited. Countless slaves worked in the gold mines, cattle ranches, and citrus orchards in California in the 1840s and 1850s, while even more were cowboys on the plains. Dozens of Black-founded towns are scattered across the West, and, of course, one of the worst race riots in American history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Alt-history or no, you don’t get the modern United States—including its scientific advancements and racism—without the development of the West, and you don’t get the West without Black people.

Normally I wouldn’t use a review to comment on the commentary around a novel, but in the case of Underground Airlines I feel it’s a necessary tangent. There’s an article circulating in which Winters, another white author, and a (presumably) white reporter praise Winters’ “bravery” for writing about slavery. Yes, it’s pleasantly surprising that a white man was able to tell such a well-crafted story from the Black perspective without resorting to white savior-ism, but there’s nothing “fearless” about the privileged writing about the oppressed, especially when the oppressed have been telling the same stories for longer and with more depth.

Movies, TV, and books have repeatedly sidelined PoC-penned narratives in favor of white creators. Until the movie came out a few years ago, more people were familiar with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin than Solomon Northup’s 12 Years A Slave. And if we’re talking white authors writing SFF novels about PoC, I’d argue Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, released a few months ago, handles the intricacies of Black life far better than Underground Airlines, which is more concerned with bigger, more universal themes. White people creating content about people of color isn’t new and it certainly isn’t “daring,” and it worries me that no one involved in the article could see past their own self-congratulations.

If I hadn’t read Underground Airlines before that asinine article, it probably would’ve put me off the book altogether, after all authorial intent makes a huge difference in terms of the context of a book. But I’m begging you, don’t let it stop you from reading this book. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking novel. And while you’re off at the bookshop, pick up some Octavia Butler as well.

Underground Airlines is available now from Mulholland Books.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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