In his The Last Policeman trilogy, Ben Winters imagined a detective practicing his profession in a world where the imminent extinction of humanity via an incoming asteroid makes law enforcement seem pointless. With his newest book, Underground Airlines, he invents another sort of existential detective—a manhunter for the U.S. Marshals—pushed to a different extreme. The narrator of the novel, who goes by the name Victor, tracks down runaway slaves in an alternate version of the United States in which the Civil War never occurred and four Southern states continue to support the ownership of human beings, or “Persons Bound to Labor,” as bureaucratic euphemism would have it. One thing that makes Victor a particularly effective operative is that he is black himself, and an escaped slave.
Victor is very, very good at his job, having sniffed out 209 escapees in the several years he’s worked under Mr. Bridge, a man he has never met and only communicates with via telephone. “I was feeling the pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of the job,” he observes after making the most of some sketchy leads. “That’s the problem with doing the devil’s work. It can be pretty satisfying, now and again.” But that very same case—a young man whose file contains several major irregularities—soon scrapes away the thin shell of indifference Victor has created to shield himself from what he does. Up come memories of his ghastly youth in a Carolina slaughterhouse plantation, along with the faces of every single person he’s helped the Feds to catch. Not that he has much choice in the matter; Mr. Bridge threatens to return him to the plantation if he doesn’t perform his duties, and a tracking device implanted in his spine makes his own escape impossible.
As with many noir-ish detective fictions, the puzzle to be solved in Underground Airlines matters less than the opportunity it gives its outsider narrator to infiltrate and describe the social world of the novel. Victor has far keener causes for his alienation than, say, Philip Marlowe, but his sardonic take on such recognizable features of modern life as a budget Indianapolis hotel or a corporate plaza or a ratty trailer park resembles that of Raymond Chandler’s detective. Unlike Marlowe, however, Victor roils with barely contained guilt, an internal torment perpetually at war with his self-interest and the sheer, obliterating fear of being returned to bondage. He survives, as many of us do, by trying not to think about the compromises he’s had to make. Then the case of the fugitive known as Jackdaw—he of the troublingly sloppy file—finally forces Victor to confront his conscience.
Alternate histories (also known as “counterfactuals”) tempt their readers to nitpick on the details of their world-building. Winters concocts a U.S. in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he had the chance to serve a day as president. James Brown, an escaped slave, becomes an international star who refuses to perform in his homeland. Japanese cars are difficult to obtain because Japan, like the developed nations of Europe, imposes sanctions on the United States so that the rest of the Union will pressure the remaining holdout states—known as the Hard Four—to abolish slavery. Most American free states boycott slave-made goods as well. The Hard Four prosper by trading with less picky foreign markets, but their principal products (meat, cotton, textiles) are not exactly the stuff of postindustrial boom economies. Some figures from our own world—Michael Jackson, FDR, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr.—seem to have played very similar roles to the ones they played in history, with only a few key variations. The U.S. of the 21st century is still recovering from a protracted war over Texas’ attempt to secede in the 1960s instead of a quagmire in Southeast Asia.
Part of the idea at work here is that history has a mighty inertia; it takes a lot more than a little thing like the absence of the Civil War to transform its course utterly. Victor describes himself as “thinking, shit does not change. Thinking, it will never change.” It’s a virtual refrain for him and serves as his excuse for not trying to save much more than his own skin. Yet the fact that only four states cling to the institution of slavery suggests that things can change, however slowly and however grueling the setbacks. The free states still have racists, but there are also interracial love affairs and friendships and “plenty of ‘good citizens’ ” who “go to jail every year, rather than lift a finger to assist a slave-hunting Marshal.” That Victor chooses to put “good citizens” into quotes is telling. He’s equally skeptical about the activities of the secret organization that gives the book its title, the modern-day counterpart to the Underground Railroad. “It’s piecemeal,” Victor elaborates, “it’s small-group action, teams of northerners, daring or crazy, making pinprick raids into the Hard Four, grabbing people up and hustling them to freedom.” He can’t allow himself to respect an effort that’s so “ad hoc,” yet he can’t quite dismiss it, either. Like most hard-boiled detectives, he’s struggling to regain the hope of doing something good himself and just doesn’t realize it yet.
This, Victor’s redemption, something that can only be achieved by the acknowledgment of everything he’s tried so hard to repress, is the real substance of Underground Airlines, not any extended thought experiment about how the course of history might have run and all the repercussions thereof. It matters less whether things can change than whether Victor thinks they can or admits to himself that they have to. Unsurprisingly, the course of the novel’s story takes him back into the slave states where the truth about his life can no longer be avoided.
Underground Airlines has generated some controversy, although most of this was sparked by a clumsy and uninformed New York Times profile of Winters, who is white. The Times writer, Alexandra Alter, quotes several writers, black and white, who apparently consider Winters’ choice of a black narrator in a story about slavery to be “daring,” and she seems to have confused this with the idea that speculative fiction about slavery is uncommon. It isn’t; there’s a long history of both black and white authors using the devices of speculative fiction—time travel, alternate history, etc.—to address what is one of the most painful and horrific aspects of America’s past. Add to that the countless times science fiction has used humanity’s encounters with aliens, whether they enslave us or we enslave them, as a metaphor for how we treat each other, and there’s probably no other genre that’s dealt with the subject more obsessively.
But there’s also a history of protests over white novelists writing about American slavery from the perspective of black narrators. In 1968, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on a document written by the leader of a 1839 slave revolt in Virginia, won the Pulitzer Prize but also provoked a fierce debate. Leading the attack on the novel was a collection of essays, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, that dismissed it as “mired in misinterpretation” and “a monumental failure.” Activists drowned out Styron when he appeared in public to speak about the book and even managed to get a film adaptation canceled. Mike Thelwell, one of the contributors to Ten Black Writers Respond, wrote that “the real ‘history’ of Nat Turner, and indeed of black people, remains to be written.” But as Jess Row observed for the New York Times in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, the dispute had an unexpectedly and marvelous outcome, helping to spur a boom in black authors writing the “postmodern slave narrative,” great novels that include Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Charles Johnson’s The Middle Passage.
Contra Winters’ Victor, change is possible, although it never comes fast enough. The disagreement now isn’t over who’s entitled to tell this sort of story at all—so many excellent authors have attempted it in the past 50 years—but over whose version gets touted by establishment journals such as the Times. Winters himself responded to J. Holtham’s Slate piece on the issue by pointing out that he’d directed Alter to a blog post he’d written in tribute to the black science-fiction novelist Octavia Butler, whose books are among the genre’s most celebrated works on the theme of slavery. “It breaks my heart that people think I am ignoring Butler, or ignorant of her work, or just plain ignorant,” Winters wrote.
It would be a shame, as well, if readers and commentators decided that slavery is Underground Airlines’ only subject. The work done by Persons Bound to Labor in Winters’ novel doesn’t go undone in our world. In place of the high-tech surveillance and security used to contain the workers in Alabama textile factories, our corporations exploit the poverty and desperation of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, sometimes imposing working conditions that differ little from outright bondage. The treatment of immigrant workers in the U.S.’s massive poultry processing plants is not much better than what Victor endures in Carolina. When some of Victor’s abolitionist contacts insist that revolution could be sparked by an exposé revealing the slave-made origins of the sneakers and T-shirts sold by Townes Stores, a Walmart-like chain, he scoffs. “In time,” he tells himself, “people would go back to Townes, because their shit is pretty cheap, wherever it’s coming from. It’s pretty cheap and it’s pretty good. Nothing would change. People shaking their heads, shrugging their shoulders, slaves suffering somewhere far away, the Earth turning around the sun.” And when he puts it like that, it’s hard to argue with him.
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. Mulholland Books.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.