It’s a cliche to say that this is hauntingly written alternate-history but, truly, this story is haunting me. In spare moments when nothing else has my attention, I am thinking of the main character, (whose true name he chooses not to share), and of the world in which he lives.
In Underground Airlines, the Civil War did not happen. President Lincoln was assassinated before the North and South could rally against each other and, instead of the end of slavery, the U.S. has made a devil’s bargain: allowing slavery in some states, ostensibly monitored, but truly unchecked and just as awful as ever. America eventually withdraws from the United Nations in defiance over the world’s condemnation of U.S. practices, and many countries boycott U.S. goods because they are produced with slave labor. Of course, there are parent corporations that hide their connection to the remaining slave states (the Hard Four) and nothing and no one has hands clean of slavery.
This book covers a lot of ground. It’s about a lot of things. It’s a thriller, full of action and intrigue, and will appeal to readers who like mysteries and spy stories, even if they are not interested in the big questions. It’s also about all the ways in which we look away, do what’s comfortable for ourselves today, in this moment, willfully ignoring the harm we are doing to people who are at a distance (however small) from us. The world Winters creates is very real, believable. The U.S. may not have official ‘slavery’ today, but we do have persistent and pervasive economic and social conditions that are abhorrent and unacceptable. We don’t need an alternate history sci fi thriller to show us what that looks like.