Innovative, daring, and gripping—all three descriptors fail to give Ben Winters’ novel Underground Airlines full justice. Taking place in the modern United States of America, this novel follows in the mantra of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, rewriting history after the assignation of one of history’s leaders of cataclysmic change. In Winter’s version of history, Abraham Lincoln never sees the White House steps. The president elect was murdered on his train trip east and with his death, the Civil War died as well. In the wake of Lincoln’s murder, the country banded together and opted to stay together as a slave state. Slavery exists on, free from the clutches of the federal government and left up to states themselves.
The USA of 2016 exists as an economic pariah and at war with one of their own 49 states as Texas had attempted to leave the union before being lopped into a permanent state of disunion. No one complains about GMO’s, they complain about products made with clean hands. Foreign cars do not come in the form of known luxury, but rather Pakistani obscurity. Forget iPods, this society has yet to economically upgraded from the tape deck due to economic sanctions that rival what North Korea endures today.
As in real history, slaves escape and people must band together not only to facilitate these escapes, but also to hide the slaves from authorities on their trip north from the hard four. It is here that the plot arrives. Victor, an escaped slave, has papers that show his legality. In truth, he has many identities. He works as a government agent, one who operates in the dark with a GPS tracker embedded in his neck. While he is free from slave masters, his freedom is contingent on his work as a government agent recovering escaped slaves for the authorities. As mentioned within the text, he is a hidden monster of the system. The boogeyman to runaways. Over the course of the fast paced novel, we follow his detective work into the escape of Jackdaw. Yet Victor encounters a series of oddities in the case, and these irregularities threaten to blow both his life and the system wide open as a whole as the pages turn and surprises are abound.
- “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.”
- “And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”
- “The real world was a trap, thought, and I couldn’t escape it.”