Underground Airlines has a unique premise, which can basically be summed up as follows: what if the American Civil War never happened? The answer to that question, according to Ben H. Winters’ novel, is that slavery would still exist in four southern states, tolerated by the rest of the Union because it’s easy to ignore. The story is told by a “freed” slave now working as a bounty hunter for a shady government agency, tracking down escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. It would, presumably, be called alternate history, apart from the fact that it takes place in the present.
If you’re interested in reading an intriguing and well-paced thriller with a bit of mystery thrown in, Underground Airlines is worth picking up. There are a number of good twists to keep the reader engaged, and the depiction of subterfuge and the protagonist’s increasing lack of comfort with his own actions are well-developed. If you enjoyed Stephen King’s 11.22.63, there’s a really strong chance you’ll like Underground Airlines; it’s very similar in terms of its main character, subplots and propulsive conclusion.
My problem is that I didn’t like 11.22.63, and once I realised how much Underground Airlines shares with it, I couldn’t help but make comparisons. The narrator of Winters’ novel (who I keep calling ‘the narrator’ because his name changes so many times in the story) is, like King’s, not particularly interesting, and the cursory addition of a female character to add obstacles to the solving of the plot in both books was a huge source of irritation to me. I really wanted to like Underground Airlines; I’m a fan of alternate history, but I’m not sure the use of historical concepts works here. For me (and surely everyone), a key part of successful alternate history is that the fictional concept has to be believable and, maybe I’m just very naive, but the continuing existence of slavery in the 21st century just wasn’t convincing. I also found myself pondering what purpose a narrative in which slavery does still exist and the rest of the US and, indeed, the world, are prepared to turn a blind eye. I believe that a really tight, convincing alternate history could highlight continuing racial conflict; I just don’t think that Underground Airlines is that book.