Skip to main content

Underground Airlines


Underground Airlines

In a work of revisionist fiction that will call to mind such masterworks as Philip K. Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, Ben H. Winters takes us to a modern-day US that looks familiar lest one big difference. Sure, there are all the modern conveniences we enjoy today, such as smartphones, eco-cars and MP3 players. The one striking difference in the US of UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is that the Civil War never took place.

Most of history happened as scheduled. President Abraham Lincoln was still assassinated. The outcome of there not having been a Civil War is the fact that slavery was never abolished. As a result, there are still four states that actively continue slave ownership: Alabama, Carolina (there is no North/South division), Louisiana and Mississippi.

"Ben H. Winters has written a profoundly unique novel that at times is a thriller but more frequently is a great piece of literary fiction."

The protagonist of UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is both memorable and unique. He works for the U.S. Marshall Service as a sort of bounty hunter, and his role is to hunt down escaped slaves who illegally left their owners. The man who calls himself Victor also has one very defining characteristic --- he is black. Victor was able to strike a deal with the government that allows him to hunt for them. His target is a young slave who goes by the name of Jackdaw. As Victor chases Jackdaw, he cannot help but recall his own time spent on a slave-owned plantation. He is haunted by these memories and must try his best to suppress them in order to do his job.

The title of the novel is clearly a play on the Underground Railroad that was utilized during the actual Civil War. Underground Airlines refers to a similar means of mass escape by slaves seeking to leave their imprisonment in the Hard Four slave states. The Airlines is merely a metaphor as most of the flights take place on land via unmarked vans and stolen tractor-trailers.

Victor calls on his friend, Martha, to help in his pursuit of Jackdaw. The case really blows open when Martha has a hacker friend break into a database called TorchLight, which is a comprehensive listing of every person who is or ever has been held by any plantation, factories, mines, working prisons, home systems, oil rigs or an endless variety of places where Persons Bound to Labor are bound.

This revelation not only opens up doors for Victor, but also opens his eyes to what his reality is all about. More importantly, it makes him question who he really works for. UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is not about the pursuit of individuals as much as it is about the pursuit of the truth. It is only in the final confrontation between Victor and his U.S. Marshall Service handler, Mr. Bridge, that we learn what is really going on.

Ben H. Winters has written a profoundly unique novel that at times is a thriller but more frequently is a great piece of literary fiction. It is quite a departure from his early days writing horror pieces like the terrific BEDBUGS or the Edgar Award-winning Last Policeman trilogy. UNDERGROUND AIRLINES comes at a very important and volatile time in U.S. history, when groups like Black Lives Matter are trying to make some of the same statements Winters is visiting through the theme of speculative historical fiction.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on July 14, 2016

Underground Airlines
by Ben H. Winters

  • Publication Date: July 18, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Mulholland Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316261254
  • ISBN-13: 9780316261258