Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters – Book

Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters captured my heart and broke it when he wrote The Last Policeman trilogy. I’m not sure how he did that but in my review of World of Trouble I put it down to the magic of good writing. Mr. Winters writes science-fiction with an apocalyptic edge. His newest offering, Underground Airlines, is in the same vein. One of the best reasons to write science fiction is that it allows you to include lots of social commentary without being pedantic. Instead you get to exercise your most flighty imaginings and then ground them in our present day human dilemmas.

Winters imagines that America never actually fought the Civil War to free the slaves. He proposes a parallel America where a compromise ended the war before it began. In this compromise, four US states were allowed to keep their slaves and to continue to use them in a variety of industries. These industries conduct their business in secure compounds surrounded with electrified fences and guards and security cameras. In the North, above and around these four Southern states, there are many free black folks, who are not as free as you would like them to be (sound familiar?). Since Northern officials assume that any one of them could be a runaway from a Southern business plantation they are subject to random stops. Their paperwork must be in order and with them at all times. Many free folks live in the poorest parts of the largest cities in areas that are all known by the same name, Freedman Towns. In these days many years after the compromise was made law the only thriving economies are the Four Slave States.

Jim Dirkson (not his real name), a black man who was once a slave, has been caught and turned into a bounty hunter. A chip implanted by the US Marshals insures that he can be forced to catch runaway slaves and return them to the “plantations” that own them. He has learned to appreciate the small pleasures that come with his very limited freedom and to tuck away the nagging of his conscience, which makes sense considering that he has no choice at all about what he must do. He is in Indianapolis on an ordinary case to catch a runaway named Jackdaw. However, on closer examination of Jackdaw’s file the case appears to be anything but ordinary. Martha, a young white woman with a mixed race child has her own reasons for joining Jim to solve the mystery of Jackdaw.

This may be a parallel America experiencing a divergent future; the fact is, though, that this slave-holding America, sadly, has much in common with our version of America which has supposedly chosen to abolish slavery and in which all men (and women) should be equal. We know that we have doled out freedom to Americans of African Descent quite grudgingly. Winters hits us with an alternate reality that (almost) might as well be our actual reality. Will any amount of excoriation and guilt teach us to look for ways to tackle the issues in our inner cities that function as race and poverty traps? Will we finally find ways to get people the things they need to live productive lives which promise a comfortable future? You won’t find the answer in Underground Airlines, but you will find that an exaggeration of our actual social conditions might get you thinking.

What was different about the escape of Jackdaw? Why was his folder so different from the others that Jim had been assigned? Where is Jackdaw now? What are the Southern States up to now? Ben H. Winters doesn’t forget to pursue his case once again, just as his Last Policeman did not give up even in the face of apocalypse. This novel did not quite break my heart the way the trilogy did, although eventually the fictional outcome could possibly be just as awful. Perhaps it is because the conditions in the America we already occupy have done the deed already. Still, I must say that I really connect with the stories that Mr. Winters has to tell.


Modern Lovers by Emma Straub – Book

Modern Lovers2


Literature right now is looking at families and, just lately a surprising number of these families live in New York City. Perhaps it is because diversity has long been tolerated by sophisticated New Yorkers. Perhaps it is the desire, held in abeyance by many of us, to live in New York City for at least a while. Maybe it is because, somehow, raising a family in New York City, seems both better than raising a family elsewhere because of the pace of the city and all the cultural options that families can sample, and more problematic because it denies children more bucolic pleasures. Unless you have money it is probably quite difficult to raise a family in this particular American city. However, when you are the author of a book your fictional family can be as rich as you like and thus the whole NYC fantasy can play out. Despite the stimulating and expensive surroundings it is still possible to make points about modern life that resonate universally, so an author can have their cake and eat it too.

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub is just such a novel. We meet three people who met each other in college. They were in a band together and were quite popular at local college parties and bars. They wore gothic attire and managed to sound better than they actually were. A fourth band member, Lydia, who became very famous, died in an OD at the age of 27. Two band members, Elizabeth and Andrew married. Elizabeth is a real estate agent, Andrew, who inherited money, is a man who drifts from interest to interest. They have a son Harry, who is studying for his SAT’s. Zoe, the other band member, apparently so beautiful and lively that people are always falling in love with her, is married to Jane, a chef with her own successful restaurant. They all once shared a house in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn. Zoe and Jane have a daughter, Ruby, also preparing for her SAT’s. The college band is being resurrected in memory as a result of a decision that must be made.

This is a slice of life novel, although not in a strict sense since we do hear the backstory. Each couple is at a point of crisis in their relationship. Each couple must decide whether to remain together or to separate. Harry and Rudy, ditching their SAT Prep course also have things to work out both together and separately. Does it make any difference that one couple is made up of a man and woman and the other couple is made up of two women? That’s what is refreshing about this novel. We see two marriages and two families, but the difficulties and challenges each couple faces could occur in any relationship. This is lighter than you would think based on the subject matter, perhaps even a bit superficial, and perhaps the ending is a bit abrupt with too little detail about the outcomes for each character, but this is still an enjoyable book with engaging characters.