Friday, 21 October 2016

Ben H Winters: Underground Airlines

Did this start with the title and then Winters just had to do something with it? It’s such a great title.

It’s also a great high concept hook. Winters is good at this. The Last Policeman trilogy had a great hook; the world is ending, let’s look at it through the eyes of one guy trying to live a normal life as everything falls apart. Underground Airlines has another killer hook; what would the modern world be like if the USA still had slave states?

Spookily normal. Winters hints at the economic isolation of the USA, and the ways in which the bigger world would be different, but he keeps his focus squarely on his narrator and the day to day reality of hunting down escaped slaves. Victor’s USA is not all that different from our own; mobile phones, the internet, a hollowed out industrial economy. And four states with three million slaves, not to mention a Republic of Texas which either is or isn’t independent depending on whose propaganda you read. The Texan War fills the same space in this USA that the Vietnam war filled in the real world; a meat grinder which deflected the government just at the time when it might have started to deal with its internal contradictions.

As with the Last Policeman, a lot turns on the narrator. Henry Palace was a loveable doofus, charmingly out of his depth and gamely trying to do the right thing. Victor is a much darker character, clinging to his freedom by taking it off other people. When slaves escape to the free states, the feds hunt them down and hand them back, and Victor is one of the undercover agents who does the hunting. You need black agents to do this, and the only way the US Marshals can get those agents is by turning some of the escaped slaves on the rest. Victor is not one of the good guys. Victor is the guy who finds the good guys and betrays them.

It’s a tricky balancing act, both for the character and the writer. Victor’s smart enough to hate himself, and sneaky enough to pretend that he’s OK with what he has to do to get by; Winters is smart enough to get all of this into Victor’s voice as he tells us his story, an unreliable narrator who even lies to himself.

SF usually has three components; the gimmick, the plot which showcases the gimmick somehow, and the characters who make you care what happens. The gimmick is the easy bit, because that’s the bit you can write on a beermat; what if X were Y. The characters are usually the bit where SF crashes and burns. From what I’ve seen of Winters, he’s good at the gimmick and all the little touches which make the gimmick seem like it’s not a gimmick at all, and he’s good at the characters. It’s the plot which struggles. In the Last Policeman, the collapsing plots and pointless McGuffins were part of the character, really; Henry thought life had more meaning and complexity than it really did, and each book was about him finding out that it’s all just a mess. Underground Airlines is much darker and grittier, and so the lack of a plot which hangs together well is more of a problem for the book. The plot takes a long time to set up and then peters out far too abruptly before ending on what’s eithert an optimistic note or a sequel hook depending on whether we get another book.

I’d kind of like another book. Victor’s good company for all his flaws, and Winters kept the tension rising in the late going so that I could hardly bear to read the next chapter in case something terrible happened. And there’s a lot of stuff unpacked quickly in the closing pages which I would like to see fleshed out in another book. 

The thing which I’m still not sure about is how much of the idea is a what-if about how you could make slavery work in a modern world, and how much of it is a coded criticism of what we have instead with Asian sweatshops churning out cheap goods in horrible conditions that we all try hard not to think about.

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