“Underground Airlines” (2016) / Ben H. Winters / 1.7.17

29 Jan

Underground Airlines, Ben H. WintersUnderground Airlines is a very cool book.

Ben H. Winters is a busy author, having published at least one new book every year since 2009. His first two books are Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009) and Android Karenina (2010). From 2012 to 2014, he published a critically acclaimed trilogy of detective novels set in New Hampshire in the run-up to an imminent asteroid collision that will wipe out humanity. Then, in 2016, we were given Underground Airlines, a very cool book, as I’ve said, but also a brave book, frightening, timely, suspenseful, funny, and, in no small measure, hopeful and inspiring.

Now, I’d never heard of Ben H. Winters until I came across this one on display at Spectator Books in Oakland, but its outrageously bold premise hooked me in and I couldn’t resist buying a copy. A little history: the Crittenden Compromise was a would-be deal that would have permanently enshrined slavery in the United States. The proposal, put forth by Senator John J. Crittenden in 1860 as a means to solve the slavery problem that was then leading many politicians in the South to propose secession, included six amendments to the Constitution as well as four Congressional resolutions, which would have basically amounted to (1) each state having the right to decide on the question of slavery itself, (2) Congress having no rights to interfere with slavery or the interstate slave trade in and between those states that permit slavery, and (3) all of the law enforcement authority of the US being required to aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves. The particularly nefarious part of the proposal, though, was in its built-in permanence: the amendments contained language stating that no future amendment to the Constitution could alter these amendments, nor could these ever be repealed. Of course, and thankfully, this shit was shut down fast.

But Underground Airlines asks us to imagine a world in which this compromise was passed, and slavery persisted in various states throughout the 1800s and 1900s, and a few slave states went free over the years, but that four of them, the Hard Four, still use slavery today, in the modern world, with iPhones, airplanes, and globalization. Imagine modern, industrial cotton plantations where slave labor is used not only to pick the cotton, but to turn it into textiles and prepare it for market. Imagine well-meaning northern Americans in today’s world drinking fair-trade coffee and wearing slavery-free clothing. Imagine white hipsters in northern metropolises tattooing themselves with slave brandings out of solidarity with those in bondage in the South. Imagine the free states struggling economically because the civilized world, having long ago outlawed slavery, refuses to trade with the US on moral grounds. And imagine slave states prospering because emerging markets aren’t so picky about where they buy their textiles, and, also, zero labor costs. It’s a nightmare scenario, certainly scary to think about, but it’s also undeniably fascinating as a premise for a novel.

Ben H. WintersNow, the novel is simultaneously slow and thoughtful in its gradual depiction of this horrible reimagined world and fast-paced and quite suspenseful in terms of its plot. The novel’s principal protagonist works for the US Marshals as a kind of high-tech slave-catcher. He’s also black, and a former slave himself. He’s in Indianapolis on the tail of a recently escaped “PB” (person bound).

To be perfectly honest, I’m struggling to calculate exactly what I can say about the plot here; it’s so intricately nested and built upon gradually unfolding reveals, that I’m reticent to say anything at all, quite frankly. Take it on faith from me: it’s amazing, it’s both a ton of fun and scary as hell, and it progresses with the kind of nail-biting, slow-burning suspense of a high-quality espionage film, but one set in a world unlike any you’ve ever seen or even imagined.

See what I mean? As I said, it’s a very cool book.

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