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.