Monday, September 26, 2016

Underground Railroad, Underground Airlines

I read over this past week and weekend, back to back, Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad and Ben Winters' Underground Airlines.

These books have a similar elevator pitch. That is to say, they're both SFF books about the system of slavery in the United States and characters who escape it, or attempt to escape it, via a SF version of the underground railroad.

They're also both good books, in their own ways.

Ben Winters has written an alternative history/thriller -- and it's a page turner, there's no disputing that. In his Underground Airlines, Lincoln is assassinated much earlier, and thus the Civil War never happens. The United States still has slavery.  Though only in four Southern states are still slave states, every state in the union is bound by the Fugitive Slave act, and nowhere is a runaway slave (a Person Bound to Labor) safe from the Federal Marshals charged with hunting them down.

The main character in Underground Airlines is a former slave, whose true name we never get, though he is called Victor through most of the book. Caught by a Federal Marshal and turned to their use, he now hunts down runaways for the Marshals himself. The main plot of the story involves the fugitive slave Victor is currently hunting, Jackdaw, who turns out not to be the usual sort of fugitive; and a white woman with a black child he picks up at a hotel, who is hunting the black man she loves, also a fugitive, but one who has been captured and returned to the slave states.

As I said, it's a ripping yarn, and very effective. Winters writes well, and he plots well. Put next to Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad, though, it pales.

Colson Whitehead writes about three generations of women living in slavery on a plantation in Georgia. The main character in his Underground Railroad is Cora, and it is Cora who rides the underground railroad -- and in his book it is an actual railroad, running along under the ground, something like a subway, weird and shape-changing, different every time we see it. This is one of the SFF parts of the book, though perhaps it is more like magical realism.

The other part is that no one who rides the railroad can control where or when they get off.  Though this, too, is not precisely clear -- this too changes as we look at it. Cora flees Georgia to land in South Carolina, but it's not the South Carolina of 1820 that we know, being more like a 1920 South Carolina -- except there is still slavery, and still lynching, and the slave-catcher who is hunting Cora can still find her there.

Whitehead's book is not a thriller.  It's not a ripping yarn.  On the other hand, it is actually about slavery and about racism in America. Ben Winters' book tries to be about these things, but (maybe ironically) the desire for plot gets in his way, I think. Also, he hasn't thought deeply enough about what it's like to be in slavery, or to be in bondage, or about racial oppression. He's got many superficial details right -- this is why his book works well for what it is -- but when we put his Victor next to Cora or any of the characters in Underground Railroad, we can see him for the toy he is.

And that's the other problem with Underground Airlines. Victor is, really, its only main character who is black, who is a slave. There are other black characters, and other slave characters, but they are all minor characters.  The main characters in Winters' book, and almost all the characters who take meaningful action, are white. (Victor himself almost never takes action -- he mostly just reacts.) The white characters are, mostly, powerful, clever, and resourceful. This isn't a bad thing in a thriller -- you want your villains to be capable. And not all the white characters are like this -- we have some white idiots and jerks.

But still, turning to Whitehead's book, where almost all the main characters are black, and nearly every one of them is active and resourceful, we see a contrast.

Also, Whitehead has thought deeply about both slavery and racial oppression. Further, his treatment of both in this book is complex and interesting. Here is where the SFF element (or the magical realism element -- I can't tell those two apart) pays off. There's a horrible and wonderful passage in the book where Cora gets stranded in North Carolina for a few months. She's living in a secret room in the attic of a man and his wife, people who are a station on the underground railroad.

This secret room, and Cora's months in it, have echoes (for those of us who know the literature) both of Anne Frank's years in hiding and of Harriet Jacobs years living in that tiny crawl space above the shed in her grandmother's yard. But outside Cora's tiny gap in the side, her only airspace, she sees such horrors -- because North Carolina has decided to end slavery in its state. How? By slaughtering all its slaves, men, women, and children, in gleeful graphic public executions in the town squares.

Why? Why slaughter all these people, these women, these children? The slave-holders fear an uprising, and they fear (or claim to fear) that the black men will have sex with their women; and they fear (or claim to fear) that the black slaves will out breed them. In South Carolina, where Cora had been before, where it was 1920, the white people were just sterilizing the black women and (occasionally) lynching a few black men who got out of line. In North Carolina, where it was an alternate who knew when, the white people are killing everyone, since it's the only way to be sure.

This is mythic writing, science fiction at its best. It's a story not too many white Americans are going to like, since the white characters don't come off as heroes or saviors. But it's a brilliant work, and deserves a wide audience.

Let's hope it gets one.

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