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

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