Review 1.2: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines is set in modern times in an America where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated as president-elect, the Civil War never happened, and slavery was never abolished. Instead, it was enshrined in a series of amendments that were themselves enshrined in a new eighteenth amendment, an excerpt of which is the first text the reader sees. I spent several minutes staring at this, focusing particularly on the first sentence:

No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles…and no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted.

It’s a little cutesy that the actual eighteenth amendment, Prohibition, is the only one to have ever been amended, but historical in-jokes aside, I find it to be a genuinely interesting thought experiment. The concept of an unamendable amendment is ludicrous on its face – “childish,” the novel’s protagonist, Victor, calls it, “like the child who wishes for infinite wishes.” But, followed to its conclusion, had such a thing happened, how could it have been overturned? It guarantees that any states still profiting from the practice would vote against a repeal that would require 75% of states to pass, and in the novel, those in power who do try to put a stop to it end up getting Abraham Lincoln’d themselves.

“Compromise. It’s how the union survives.”

(It even rhymes.)

This, of course, is all very much beside the novel’s point, as is most of what I have to say about it. I read enough interviews with Winters – whose last name is there to remind you that he, like me, is very white – to know what he was going for, and I think up to a point he did thatl. I’m not going to litigate the question of who gets to tell whose story, but I will say that not everyone gets to judge every aspect of a story’s success. I can tell you if the mechanics of Underground Airlines’s narrative work (more-or-less); I can’t speak to its success or failure in the portrayal of blackness.

But what I want to discuss has nothing to do with the color of its author’s skin, nor its protagonist’s, and everything to do with its vision of alternate history. I think it is worth digressing for a moment here to talk about two of Winters other novels, the ones that may well represent the peak of his public consciousness. You see, he is the author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, two books not a lot of people have read but almost everyone is vaguely aware of. They followed up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who went off to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter while Winters filled the shoes of Austenian – then Tolstoyan – parody.

Abstracted, each of these books are alternate histories of the narratives that inspired them. Adding horror and steampunk elements, respectively, changes them in fundamental ways, but the world must remain familiar lest it stop being parody and become homage or something else entirely.

In that way, Underground Airlines is a clear continuation of his earlier work: Make the United States clearly the United States but with whatever tweaks are necessary to make the point. Unfortunately, while it may have worked for Winters’ parody, it doesn’t for his drama.

The USA in Underground Airlines is distinctly recognizable, but not in the way you’d expect: the states themselves, particularly in Part 2, which takes place in Alabama, where slavery remains legal, are described in ways that feel alien. But its culture has developed along the exact same tree. Here are four people who still exist(ed) in the same roles at the same time period in this alternate timeline:

  • Michael Jackson
  • James Brown
  • Denzel Washington
  • Henry Kissinger

The latter of whom is referenced only in the context of his decision to remove the United States from the United Nations, as though a United States that had slavery would have been able to form the United Nations in the first place. As though a United States that had slavery would have been able to unite itself against the horrors of a European fascist regime in the first place. As though as though as though.

I’ve seen it said that all this is evidence that Winters lacks imagination. Why else would the motel Victor stays at show CNN? Why else would Michael Jackson have an album called Ben? But I don’t think that’s right. If not for these pop culture references, the world would feel too disconnected from our own, and that would undermine Winters’ real message: that this world he imagined isn’t so different from the one we live in.

The subtext is made text in when Victor travels to Alabama. He is taken in by a group of slaves who are owned by a man – conscience heavy for moral crimes committed many years prior – who leaves them be. Victor asks why they don’t leave. One, Ada, answers:

“Go north? … Get followed around in stores the rest of my life? … Get pulled over every time I’m driving? Get shot by some cop, walking down the street?”

Ada isn’t talking about Alternate USA here; she’s talking about Actual USA. She must be, because she lives in a place where armed guards keep a close watch on anyone of color in the town square. The threat of violence is far more pervasive in this South than its North. She may be comfortable with or used to it, but the idea that the North is Just As Bad is, frankly, silly. It serves no narrative purpose; instead, it is there to remind you, the reader, that America is a horrible place for black people. That North is all of America. And Underground Airlines rubs it in your face.

Look, if an author is going to @ their audience, they could choose a much worse thing than reminding them of systemic inequality and brutality… but it hurts the narrative. Each time you read a reference to a real person, place, or thing, you leave the fictional world and return to the real one.

There are some clumsy attempts at changing known entities up. Victor drives a Nissan Altima… but it still has a tape deck (that he uses to listen to Michael Jackson)! This is a token reference to how global reactions to a slave-holding United States has kept technology imports back a couple of decades, which is an interesting tidbit, except that it’s still a Nissan Altima, a car that was built for its 20 years on the market in the United States South. If you don’t think about it too hard, there’s an interesting interpretation that some worldly developments were inevitable: a Japanese company called Nissan would inevitably have sprung into existence and inevitably released a car called an Altima that they would have assembled themselves. It denies America’s role in global history. There’s something compelling in that.

But it’s also, you know, not what Winters is going for. That’s me digging for a deeper meaning: it’s a Nissan Altima because that’s the Nissan car that anybody could say off the top of their heads and can thus fairly easily visualize from the various Nissan Sales Events they have seen commercials for in their lives. It’s an easy point of reference, and it ostensibly connects the alternate world to our own. But it doesn’t actually do that. It just disconnects you from the story.

But ultimately that leads to a question of how much and of this even matters. Sure, you constantly leave Victor’s side to wrap your brain around the bizarro development of this alternate Earth, but it’s also not such a complex story that it requires your full attention at any given moment. You quickly get hooked on the central mystery and want to see it through. It’s a breezy read, if not always an easy one – though considering its subject matter, it could be a heckuva lot worse. And once it’s done, five-ish hours after it began, it definitely gives you something to think about.

Maybe make a YouTube video about.

Six-Point-Three out of Ten

Review 1.1: Creating a YouTube Channel

If somebody – inevitably over 40 – asked me to explain YouTube, I would instead tell them why I decided to start a YouTube channel.

That decision, immediate and immutable, to answer with a personal anecdote instead of some fully reasoned Theory of Content, I think, is central to what such a Theory would ultimately be.

Welcome to that YouTube channel, by the way, all shiny and new. It’s called The Week I Review, and it is – of course – a review show. But it’s a not a typical review show, focused on one medium or technology. Instead, its reach is broad, driven solely by what I, Alec Kubas-Meyer – nice to meet you, find interesting. Unfortunately for any chance I might have had to find a consistent audience, that’s a pretty wide net.

I have some experience with this, having written about video games and tech for publications like The Daily Beast and Destructoid as well as film for Filmmaker Magazine(‘s website), Indiewire, and Flixist. This thing I’m doing right now I cut my teeth on briefly for the latter a few years back.

I have also directed short films ranging from drama to martial arts psychodrama – with more in the works – and two one-man shows that had a collective audience of thirteen – think I’m done with those. Oh, there was the time I was writing rap songs that wouldn’t have gone anywhere but had novelty long since passed on and honestly it would just make me seem more wanna be than I gotta be considering, well, just look at me, so it’s something I turned my back on.

And now I’m on YouTube. Because it’s the next step.

The inevitable result of our collective obsession with social media is a shift towards platforms – YouTube, Twitch, Instagram – that let us literally scream into the void. On YouTube, more than any other, there is an expectation that the scream be packaged, auto-tuned.

Life, sponsored by Adobe Premiere Pro.

From July 2014 through the end of 2017, I used an app called 1 Second Everyday. The TED talk given by its creator, which I will link in the description below, convinced me to put down $1 and capture a moment from each day for three and a half years. Its two goals:

  • Remind you of the life you have lived
  • Remind you to go live a life

The first one is obvious. The second, important. When you have to record a second of your life every single day, knowing that you will look back on – and subsequently share – it, you feel a compulsion to something. You don’t want that girl who broke your heart in middle school to think your life is less interesting than hers, do you? So you go to a concert, a party, another country, anything to give your life… meaning? I dunno. But the secret is that you only need to be there for one second; once the footage is on your phone, you may as well have been there all night.

It becomes a habit, and there is some comfort in that habit, but it nags at you any time you think about just being lazy: Hey, Alec, this isn’t fun. You don’t look cool and interesting and unique.

That pressure to perform the daily ritual of Something Interesting eventually wore me down. I’m grateful for the experiences that the app forced me to have, though, and for someone who needs some motivation to get up and do, I recommend it. (Four-point-seven-five out of five.)

This channel will not feature daily videos, nor is it intended to be a complete catalogue of my life’s events. But it follows the same impulse. Each Monday, I will review the most interesting thing I did, saw, played, or otherwise experienced in the previous seven days. Maybe it’s new. Maybe it isn’t. But it will be the thing on my mind that week.

“Interesting,” of course, does not necessarily mean “good.” Some things are interesting precisely because they aren’t good – how a thing fails is often more interesting than how it succeeds, or so says the cynic in me.

A friend who heard the pitch asked if the reviews were going to be serious or if it was some kind of ironic meta-joke. And: they will be serious insofar as I will seriously be approaching each week with a critical eye and scoring things on an alarmingly precise 100-point scale. But I’m a deeply sarcastic person, so, ya know, that’ll be there too.

Much – if not most – of the time, the videos will be a lot of me here talking into the camera; if you don’t like my face, you’re going to hate this channel. Also, you’re so mean. 🙁

Some things lend themselves to more – B-roll, media footage, etc. – and when I have the ability to do more I will, but I’m committing to a posting schedule and have long since committed to the day job that funds this, so there’s only so much I can guarantee.

Actually, while we’re at it, set all your expectations low but one: I will never to lie to you. I might joke about things, maybe even regret them down the line, but it’s going to be real.

I have a fundamental aversion to dishonesty that has caused, um, complications in my life. If I were to lie to you in a YouTube video, I’d be unable to sleep for several days and then have to post a follow-up video detailing the lie. Some folks might find click value in that, but I think all of us would hate it – so let’s just not.

It’s important to me that I be realistic and honest. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly – in a way I can feel good about. This whole channel is a legit-in-the-economics-101-sense-of-the-word investment for me.

People aren’t wrong when they say that the barrier to entry on YouTube is approaching zero. Channel creation is free, and if you shoot videos on a smartphone, I guess that might be considered “free” as well.

But I’m not shooting on a smartphone, and the equipment I’m using wasn’t free. Some I had already owned. Much of it I did not. Also new: This website. This all costs money. Perhaps not much in the grand scheme of things, but enough that I feel it in my bank account.

And even if I never make that money back, at least as likely as not, it’s important that I spent it. It proves to me – if not to you – that I take this thing seriously. Plus, while money does not guarantee quality, it helps.

If you’re going to be staring at my dumb face until it haunts your nightmares, the barest minimum I can do is make that scene look kind of interesting – to have a background other than an empty wall, put some light and depth in there. The teleprompter means I can speak quickly without jump cuts – unless I want them for specific effect.

Plus, because this is pre-written, I won’t ever waste your time asking questions I should have just looked up beforehand. I’ll do the research and, if necessary, link to my sources.

I write the way I talk, something that can come off poorly in professional emails and even social texts. Audio ensures my inflections are adequately expressed. The video adds my overly animated demeanor – one that literally half my life ago caused a girl I once called beautiful in a language I didn’t know to make fun of me.

I talk with my hands, my eyebrows; I emote and express and probably look silly, but this is YouTube. Everything is silly.

Increasingly, though, it’s silly in the most serious of ways. YouTube is an equalizer, a place where anyone can find an audience. People all over the world are making their livelihoods here. I am not. I don’t expect to ever be.

Hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. It’s entirely possible there are dozens of shows just like this one that neither I nor anyone else has ever heard of. Nothing makes mine particularly special, but it’s mine.

When I was a teenager, I would look at all the celebrities in their twenties. Though I knew that they had started out younger than I was at the time, I felt some solace in the fact that I had a few years to go before their success made me feel “old” and “purposeless.” Now, the rising stars are all younger, and there’s no way to intellectualize it. I needed to stop complaining and start doing.

To be clear: I’m not looking for celebrity, and maybe that fact alone means I’ll never achieve it. That’s fine. What I, like so many others, created a YouTube channel for was to have this thing that I can pour my creative energy into on my terms and mine alone. I needed to have an outlet – this outlet.

So here I am.

Eight-Point-Five out of Ten