First Ben H. Winters’ new novel Underground Airlines certainly works as a thriller. Fans of his earlier series The Last Policeman will not be disappointed, though there may be a certain sense of de ja vu.
While Underground Airlines is set in an alternative America, one where slavery never completely ended, the main character an escaped slave forced by a government agency to hunt down other escaped slaves, is remarkable similar to Detective Hank Palace, the titular character in The Last Policeman. While Palace wanted his job, what struck me about him was his dogged instance on playing things by the book, enforcing the law of the land even when the end of the world was approaching. What mattered to him was doing the work. Victor, the escaped slave turned slave hunter, does not want to do the work, which is why he is so by the book in his approach. He never gets involved in the lives of those he captures, never lets himself care. He cannot escape his job, nor can he do it badly without going back into slavery himself. So he concentrates on his work. He is the best at what he does.
Because of this, he is assigned a very difficult case, one that contains secrets within secrets. Mr. Winters uses his detective story to explore his alternate America like may science fiction authors before him have done. What makes Underground Airlines work as a thriller is that this particular case reveals things Victor never expected to be true. Even Victor who has survived slavery, tracked down many escaped slaves and sent them back to “The Hard Four,” the four remaining slaves states, never really understood the terrible situation in America.
Second, Underground Airlines works as a character study that raises serious, uncomfortable questions. There are several points in the novel where the reader must wonder just what he would do if he were in Victor’s shoes. We want to judge him, to condemn him for sending ‘free’ people back to what he knows will be death by hard labor, but once we know his true situation we cannot. We’d probably do the same thing if we were going to be honest about it. It’s not comfortable reading.
He’s a complicated, interesting character, Victor. It’s too bad this novel appears to be a one-off, no sequels planned as far as I know. The ending basically ends the story as far as I can tell.
Third the book says something about America today without really saying anything about America today. The setting is radically different, but it still feels a bit too much like home. There’s no direct commentary on contemporary America, but too many things feel uncomfortably close to factual. It’s difficult not to look at America differently afterwards. It’s disconcerting. It should feel much more impossible than it does.
Instead, reading Underground Airlines made me think just how close this situation came to being true.