Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Published by Random House on July 5th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Alternative History, General
Format: Paperback ARC
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it. Except for one thing: slavery still exists.
Victor has escaped his life as a slave, but his freedom came at a high price. Striking a bargain with the government, he has to live his life working as a bounty hunter. And he is the best they’ve ever trained.
A mystery to himself, Victor tries to suppress his memories of his own childhood and convinces himself that he is just a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he is desperate to preserve. But in tracking his latest target, he can sense that that something isn’t quite right.
For this fugitive is a runaway holding something extraordinary. Something that could change the state of the country forever.
And in his pursuit, Victor discovers secrets at the core of his country's arrangement with the system that imprisoned him, secrets that will be preserved at any cost.
This is a good lesson on why to write your reviews as soon as you finish a book. I finished Underground Airlines last Monday, before (I read) the New York Times review, before (I knew about) the Twitter backlash, before the three days of violence in America. But here we are, living in the present, writing in reality. The question is, do I tackle the review or the controversy first? Let’s just see where things take us, shall we?
First, the world building is excellent. Underground Airlines, if nothing else it is well researched novel with a meticulously created world. The devil is in the details with this book and Winters does his due diligence in getting most of them. This is a novel where the plot will fail if the premise fails. If Winters had been unable to convince me that the Civil War had never happened, that slavery had been permanently enshrined in the Constitution, the the Hard Four were real, nothing else would have mattered. But the attention to detail in the world building makes the whole thing frighteningly plausible. It’s worth noting that Winters spends the first SIXTY EIGHT pages establishing his world.
Speaking of world building… I loved the literary name dropping Winters did. The subtle changing of the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird. “…about the Alabama runner [slave] who is discovered hiding in a small Tennessee town, and the courageous white lawyer who saves him from a vicious racist Deputy Marshal…” The celebration of Zora Neale Hurston’s “masterpiece” that was smuggled out of a sugarcane plantation “page by page” before Florida went free. These details are delightful to any bibliophile.
As far as the plot, stories, and characters go… these are a little more thin for me. I’m not a huge fan of crime noir novels, so the stylistic decision Winters made to frame the plot and Victor’s character in this fashion didn’t work overly well for me. I found the characters to be a little underdeveloped. What was really with Barton? (Though I did love the characterization that he had a ‘Mockingbird complex’ “…the white man is a the saver, the black man gets saved.”) Marsha’s motivation was believable, but there was still something missing with her… The point is the characters wer all pretty static and I wish that Winters had done more with them.
Overall I found this book to be immensely enjoyable and very readable. It’s thoughtful, well written, and will leave you thinking.
Meanwhile on Twitter…
I get it. I get the reality behind the diversity in books movement. I agree that Octavia Butler is an unsung hero and that it is wrong in so many ways. But (and here’s where I piss people off…), does that negate the fact that Winters has written an incredibly thoughtful book about race relations in America?
Look. When I started Underground Airlines I didn’t realize who Ben Winters was. Maybe a third of the way into the book I looked up who he was and had the thought, “Oh shit. He’s white.” At that point I had the thoughts and feelings on “Should he really be writing about this?” I was already committed to the story so I pressed on and it was a good book. Do I agree with Lev Grossman’s characterization that Winters is “fearless” for writing this novel? Not really. Do I think that it’s fair that Winters is getting backlash for writing this just because he’s white? Not really. Do I think that there are people of color who have written books with similar premises who have not gotten fair recognition? ABSOLUTELY.
I understand that people of color have an uphill battle in publishing. Hell, in life. But should we condemn a book that may reach a larger audience (because of the popular acclaim of his previous novels), which may get that audience to think about these issues? An audience that isn’t actively seeking out novels by people of color because they’re not book bloggers or social justice warriors, it’s an audience of casual readers. People who pick up crime novels because they want some beach reading, not all of them are going to be politically active – but Winters’s novel might reach them, it might make them think, it may turn someone who was previously apathetic into an ally. Is that a bad thing?
Just my take dear Reader. Respectful dissent is always encouraged.