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Underground Airlines

by Ben H. Winters

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,0306014,646 (3.91)102
"It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred. A gifted young Black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right--with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself. A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraodinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor's salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all--though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface. Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost. Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe"--… (more)
  1. 10
    The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (elenchus)
    elenchus: That popular culture phenomenon of the uncanny twins, two works appearing together yet unrelated in authorship, production, inspiration. Why do they appear together? In this case, each is compelling enough to read based on their own, but for me irresistable now they've shown up onstage at the same time. Ben Winters's Underground Airlines a bizarro underground railroad, updated (for reasons left implicit) for air travel; Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad making the escape trail a concrete reality. Each also addresses our world, in between stations.… (more)
  2. 00
    Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (susanbooks)
    susanbooks: Underground Airlines is very good --I gave it 4 stars -- but Delicious Foods covers the same ground so much more profoundly & doesn't need any speculation to do it.
  3. 00
    American War by Omar El Akkad (sturlington)
    sturlington: Speculative fiction about alternative Souths.
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Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
'Underground Airlines' is a story that takes place in our contemporary world, one in which slavery was never abolished. There are the northern states, so-called 'free states', and four southern states, so-called 'slave states'. Slavery is still active and maintained in the southern states. Slaves are held captive and monitored, have to undergo scrutiny for every move they make, for every place they wish to visit. Oh, how fun it is to be a black person in the southern states.

The northern states, where slavery has been abandoned after an economic trade agreement with the southern states, help fugitives escape to a better life in Canada. The means to realise this: an underground pattern of tunnels. There are no trains involved, but the name 'Underground Airlines' is a nice euphemism to escape from a dreadful situation, a situation that still exists - in a different form - today: one example given is the black population vs the white police force.

Our main character, Victor, is one of the escaped (and re-caught) slaves, but was offered a job in return for his life. He chose the job, because the alternative wasn't one. His main mission consisted in tracking down and capturing fellow fugitives to bring them back to their plantations. In his latest case, he was to bring back a man by the name of Jackdaw. Via several instructions from the US Marshals (his employers), he received the required papers to change his identity (Jim Dirkson, Brother, ...) and gain access to the southern plantations without too much trouble. So, yes, in a way, this is also a detective/thriller story. Mind you, Victor isn't even officially registered. So, whether he succeeds or fails in his mission, no one will mourn his death. All the more reason for him to be vigilant, if he wants to live.

He can't tell anyone of his true identity, of his current 'job', his mission. So, he concocts an own history, of working for a company that wishes to expand its business in the area and he has to look for the ideal location. That's also when he meets a mother (Martha Flowers) and her little son (Lionel). She seeks information about her husband, a slave called Samson. He managed to escape, but was recaptured. She and Jim (aka Victor) will little by little need each other, especially as Jim is given a new mission after trying to rescue Jackdaw, a process that didn't go very smoothly. In comes an opposing force: a priest (who helps fugitives and whom Jim/Victor met previously; he tried to gain help from the priest - Barton - to save his imaginary wife from a plantation), a black cop (Cook), ... these three work for the Underground Airlines, but internally, they all have their own agenda. Something Jim will find out soon enough, though not through a simple exchange of friendly words.

As Jim/Victor, though being constantly followed by his supervisor (thanks to an implanted chip in his/Jim's neck), manages to track down the tunnel and eventually Jackdaw's position. However, the aforementioned trio is onto Jim/Victor and awaits him at the other side of the tunnel, from which he hoped to escape. Poor Jackdaw doesn't survive; in fact, Jackdaw's real name is Kevin. He is a spy with the task to document the bad treatment of the slaves and the intrigue behind the slavery, which would then help end legalised slavery. Jim and the others, as Jim is now their captive, reach an agreement: Jim has to go back to the slave plantation where Kevin came from to meet up with another slave and recuperate an envelop containing important information. And all of a sudden, Jim/Victor is not so sure of himself any more, as if back to square one. What happened? Did he fear for his life more than before, since he was nowhere officially registered?

Said plantation will prove to be more than just that. There is supervision, but when slaves fight among each other, the guards don't intervene. They're only slaves, after all, less worth than a white human. After he's beaten up - a way to be able to isolate him from the supervised area -, he will find out how the world really works there: a system of slave-production. In other words, if I understood correctly: people are cloned, one way or another, to maintain a strong population of slaves. That's what Jim had to bring back: a flask containing genetic material to further the cloning process, should legalised slavery be abolished one day. However, the small gang who beat him up, will help him, but they refuse to escape, as this plantation is like a home to them. Everything is regulated and structured.


The story is rooted in the period of the American Civil War (1861-1863; Wikipedia-link). Especially the afterword by [a:Bertrand Campeis|12116226|Bertrand Campeis|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-632230dc9882b4352d753eedf9396530.png] (from a.o. [b:Le Guide de l'uchronie|41967142|Le Guide de l'uchronie|Karine Gobled|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1537631739l/41967142._SY75_.jpg|43939918], on my TBR-pile) offers valuable background information on this period and the story. In Winters' book, the war never took place and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before becoming president.

You won't get all giddy or happy from reading this story, on the contrary even. The cruel treatment and racism that the slaves have to undergo (or even Victor/Jim during his investigations), the fact that local people from the southern states live their lives like they're king of the world and don't want anybody (and certainly not the government) putting his/her nose in their businesses, ...

Long story short: Ben H. Winters has written an eye-opening story about (a part of) America's history (and the world's in general, as slavery and racism is not and never was not only rampant in the USA; each continent has [had] its share, even today), even if it takes place in a more contemporary version. Mr Winters did a lot of research to properly convey the atrocious events of the 19th century. As several historic events (like both World Wars) should not be forgotten - and yet, "we" never seem to learn from our mistakes (there still are wars being waged, for example, and not only for "peace") -, so should the consequences of slavery and racism be.

On a side note: You could consider 'Underground Airlines' and [b:The Underground Railroad|30555488|The Underground Railroad|Colson Whitehead|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1493178362l/30555488._SX50_.jpg|48287641] (by [a:Colson Whitehead|10029|Colson Whitehead|https://images.gr-assets.com/authors/1561996933p2/10029.jpg]) siblings, as both stories deal with the same period, the same themes, but approach them differently. 'Underground Airlines' was published in 2016 and has since then won several prizes. In late 2018, the book was translated into French (by [a:Éric Holstein|3159347|Éric Holstein|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/m_50x66-82093808bca726cb3249a493fbd3bd0f.png], whose [b:D'or et d'Emeraude|36406535|D'or et d'Emeraude|Éric Holstein|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1507914815l/36406535._SY75_.jpg|16027075] is on my TBR-pile) and published by Éditions ActuSF, as you can see here. Books like these are an excellent step-up to more serious works or articles about, in this case, the American Civil War.

---------

I was sent this book by Éditions ActuSF for review. Many thanks to them for the trust. ( )
  TechThing | Jan 22, 2021 |
Not the book I usually read. It made me uncomfortable, which I think was the author's intent. The plot twists are unexpected and a bit movie like. ( )
  ladyars | Dec 31, 2020 |
Among the many authors of recent books on slavery, Ben Winters is probably the least known to the general public, but my favorite, because of his amazing speculative fiction. His Last Policeman series is a thrilling trilogy about social collapse pending the arrival of a killer asteroid. Golden State is even further out there, a twist on the ideas of Minority Report.

Underground Airlines is impressive on at least two levels. First, Winters constructs a plausible alternate reality in which the Civil War did not happen, and four states continue to allow and encourage slavery in the twenty-first century. Now, of course, the slaves work in giant prison-like factory complexes, rather than on plantations. The most impressive part of this alternate reality, to me, was the careful thought that Winters put into the economic and diplomatic aspects of this cowardly new world: who would ally with the southern states? Who would sell them their cars? And in the north, where would people import their slave-free cotton and cigarettes from? The details are dropped casually but expand one’s view of the consequences of slavery on the global economy.

Second, the novel’s plot stands alone as a strong mystery thriller. An investigator has been hired to track down a runaway slave. The twist is that the investigator himself is a failed runaway, coerced into serving his own trackers. The pursuit is heightened therefore by the pursuer’s inner conflict, and the many twists and turns it takes will keep you reading to the end.
( )
  stephkaye | Dec 14, 2020 |
I had high hopes for this one but it was just OK.

Underground Airlines is set in a world where the Civil War never took place. Slavery was eventually abolished except for four southern states, known as The Hard Four. The Underground Airlines works to smuggle slaves out of the Hard Four. The main character, Victor, is a runaway slave who works for the US Marshals Service tracking down runaway slaves.

The story centers on him tracking down a slave named Jackdaw who has escaped bondage via the Underground Airlines. Vicior begins to sense something is amiss and thus is really what the story is about. It becomes primarily a government conspiracy mystery novel and this alternate version of the USA and the underground airlines become a backdrop as the mystery is solved. This is what disappointed me most about the novel.

The primary characters are mostly OK. There are moments in the story where you really felt for Victor because it was clear even as a free man, he was still at the mercy of white men. The level of anguish, despair, anger and desperation that accompanies this subject matter was not touched upon nearly enough. It felt like a missed opportunity. ( )
  BlackAsh13 | Nov 22, 2020 |
What a great ride! Winters' writing style really works and I could not put this book down. ( )
  tduvally | Sep 16, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
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DeMeritt, WilliamNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"So," said the young priest. "I think that I'm the man you're looking for."
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"It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred. A gifted young Black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right--with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself. A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraodinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor's salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all--though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface. Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost. Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe"--

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