October 27, 2016

Review: Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tricky book to recommend, because the basic premise is pretty triggery and requires the reader to have all their spoons in a row. Even me, and I’m usually not put off by such things. So, here is a very basic rehash for readers to decide if they can handle this book, because the author is uncompromising and relentless in taking his horrifying premise to its logical end.


This is an alternate history where the Civil War was never fought…because Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1861. In the aftermath, the Crittenden Compromise was passed, and states’ rights to hold slaves was enshrined in the Constitution, with an amendment (“no future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles”) that forbade its ever being repealed. So in our modern day, there are four states--the Hard Four; Louisiana, Missisippi, Alabama, and a reunited North and South Carolina--where slavery is still practiced. (Martin Luther King did live in this timeline, but because LBJ was dragged into, not the Vietnam War, but an 11-year fight to keep Texas from seceding, the Civil Rights Act was never passed. So although the timeline is contemporary with our own, race relations are fifty years in the past, which of course means Barack Obama was never elected. The United States, far from being the world's only superpower, also seems to be a backwater, economically depressed country.) Three million African Americans are enslaved, and the population is maintained about how you'd expect; breeding houses are mentioned, where of course--although we never explicitly see it--mass rape and forced pregnancy is practiced. The subjugation and dehumanization is constant, and the warped effect this causes is reflected in the main character, Victor (although he has another name his mother gave to him before he was taken away from her at the age of five; we never find out what it is), who is one of the most complex characters I've ever read. After escaping from his plantation and living a few brief years as a free man, he is captured by the Marshals and forced to hunt down other recently escaped slaves. This is the story of one case that turns Victor's entire world upside down. Memories he repressed for years come back to haunt him, and he is forced to confront who he is and what he has become.

I've heard some complaining that the world created here could never have happened. Perhaps so. But SF, as a genre, regularly deals with some pretty impossible things (faster than light travel, a staple of space opera, just for starters) and for me, if the book makes its own internal sense and sticks to it, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. The author does not flinch in exploring the ramifications of his premise, up to and including the final twist, the Hard Four's version of the Final Solution. So many of those ramifications discussed along the way, in throwaway lines and matter-of-fact details (the prose is tight and restrained, almost Hemingwayesque, which serves to drive home the horrors of the story being told), are so uncomfortably close to the reality we live in...it gave me the shivers, and still does, just thinking about it.

Needless to say, this is a tough book to read, and I wouldn't blame anyone, especially people of color, for being unable to finish it. It is beyond bleak in many ways. But it is unforgettable.

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