by Ben H. Winters

Mulholland Books


324pp/$26.00/July 2016

Underground Airlines

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

"Jim Dirksen" is a black man living in as alternative version of the United States in Ben H. Winters's Underground Airlines. The assassination of President-elect Lincoln meant that the Civil War was never fought and the institution of slavery managed get itself further enshrined in the U.S. Constitution with a series of six amendments. Dirkson's role in this dystopian world, is the hunt down and retrieve slaves who have escaped from the four states in which slavery is still a part of the economy.

The novel opens with Dirksen in Indianapolis following a lead on a runaway slave named Jackdaw. Winters approaches the situation just as he would a police procedural, with Dirksen interviewing possible collaborators, following up on leads and hunches, and doing the groundwork necessary to track down his leads. Jackdaw's situation or reasons are completely irrelevent to Dirksen, who has a device implanted in his neck that essentially compels his obedience to his distant master, Bridge.

Although he usually works alone, and prefers it that way, Dirksen takes pity on a down-on-her-luck white woman named Martha, and her son when he sees them stealing food from his hotel's breakfast bar. When Martha doesn't immediately disappear from his life, Dirksen is surprised, but finds himself offering her occasional assistance and support, perhaps in some way atoning for his work in tracking down runaway slaves. Martha turns out to be more complex than Dirksen first realized and eventually is able to provide him with some assistance when his own case becomes more complex than he or Bridge realized it would be.

In this world, the chief method of attacking slavery is economic, with many non-slave states passing laws which effectively boycott and product made in states in which slavery is legal. This process has decreased the number of slave-holding states over the decades until only four states still allow slavery. As Dirksen tracks down Jackdaw, he gets hints that Jackdaw's escape may include an elements that will bring down slavery in the remaining states.

Winters does an excellent job with the procedural part of his novel, portraying Dirksen's investigations while retaining his anti-hero status. Hints about Jackdaw's location and his history are dropped carefully, found by Dirksen with enough red herrings to keep things interesting. The investigation eventually takes Dirksen longer to resolve than expected as well as further afield than Indianapolis. As an alternate history, the novel works less well. Despte a massive change happening in 1860, many of the Presidents from our timeline held office at the same time in Winters's world. Michael Jackson's career doesn't appear to have been any different, and other references, such as streets named for Martin Luther King, Jr., seem too familiar, these issues tend to drop the reader from the narrative, although on the whole they are minor.

Although set in alternative version of our own world, Underground Airlines asks the reader to consider how our own society treats minorities. In considering the dystopian elements of Underground Airlines, the reader can not only sees how far we've come, but also realizes that we have a lot further to go to achieve a civilization in which all minorities are treated without suspicion based on their skin color, religion, or place of origin.

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