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The peculiar institution in modern times

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'Underground Airlines' a compelling, thought-provoking work

One of the dangers inherent to working in the realm of genre fiction is the undeniable appeal of certain tropes. These concepts have become a sort of literary shorthand, a familiar framework on which to hang a narrative.

Take alternate history, for example. These sorts of books are all about tipping points - moments in time when something happens differently than it happened in our own history - that are then extrapolated forward. One of the most popular deals with war; for example, 'What if the South won the Civil War?' is an idea explored by numerous speculative fiction practitioners. A powerful notion, to be sure, but one with which we've grown quite familiar.

Ben H. Winters takes rather a different angle in his novel 'Underground Airlines' (Mulholland, $26). This gripping, compelling, all-too-believable thriller does not ask what the United States and indeed the world - would be like if the South had won the Civil War.

It asks what it would be like if the Civil War had never happened at all.

Imagine an America that largely mirrors our own, one rife with social media and smartphones and fast food chains and pop music. But this America has a decades-long darkness at its core, one that springs from the long-ago Constitutional compromise that headed off the secession of the Confederacy.

A compromise that gave states the inalienable and unwavering right to own slaves.

This is the world in which Victor lives. Long ago, Victor escaped the plantation on which he was born and the long life of servitude that was his destiny. Captured as a runaway, Victor was recruited to join the federal law enforcement organization devoted to tracking down, recapturing and extraditing runaway PBs (PB stands for Person Bound, the government euphemism for a slave). While many states have subsequently abandoned slavery, the so-called 'Hard Four' remain steadfast in their devotion to their peculiar institution.

Victor has been sent on a mission to Indianapolis to track down a runaway by the name of Jackdaw. Despite some misgivings about this particular case, Victor throws himself into the work and finds himself growing closer to a cell of the loosely-organized abolitionist movement known as the Underground Airlines.

But as his pursuit of Jackdaw grows more frantic and his confusion regarding the case grows deeper, Victor is forced to confront certain realities of his situation. For while he believes himself to be a good man forced to do bad things in order to maintain the freedom that he holds so dear, the reality is that there are secrets so dark, so sinister, that the sacrifice of one man's liberty might be a small price to pay to bring those secrets to the surface.

'Underground Airlines' is a discomfiting book in a lot of ways. The history of these alternate United States is largely offered up in piecemeal fashion, through the attributed quotes that serve as chapter epigraphs and assorted ideas and events brought forth in the context of the narrative. The picture painted is of a country that is remarkably similar to our own.

There's a plausibility here that unsettles even as it works in service of the story. The notion of big-business plantations, massive modern corporations built on the backs of the enslaved it doesn't feel far-fetched. And while the rest of the world might express its disdain for America's conciliatory attitude toward slavery, it's clear throughout 'Underground Airlines' that, wellbusiness is business.

In Victor, Winters has created a narrator who is both sympathetic and unreliable. Both through his actions in the present day and the flashbacks that offer us a glimpse of his early plantation life, we see someone whose sole aim is to remain a free man. The choices Victor makes are often unpleasant ones, but at no point do we lose sight of why he is doing what he does; having thrown off the yoke of oppression once, he is committed to doing whatever is necessary to avoid a return even if that means lying not only to those around him, but to himself.

All of this is laid out in a propulsive, twist-laden narrative that will leave the reader questioning every new revelation and wondering about every new turn. There's a kinetic quality to Winters's prose that is inescapable; the density of its central conceit pulls the reader into an ever-tightening orbit whose speed grows exponentially until all the pieces come together in a heart-stopping and spectacular climactic impact.

Speculative fiction is at its best when it uses the trappings of genre to explore complex ideas in a new way. That's precisely what 'Underground Airlines' does this is a story unlike any other, a book whose power can't be properly expressed no matter the superlative; it holds up a cracked mirror to our world and shows us the sinister possibilities that shimmer just beneath the surface of our country's often-contentious history.

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