A New “Alternative” History: Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines

A New “Alternative” History: Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines

Because most are poorly-plotted, barely-disguised apologies for the Lost Cause, many historians have a low tolerance for “alternative histories” of the Civil War. Whether in the form of Confederate memorials like Silent Sam or Harry Turtledove novels, folks love to fantasize about what the United States would have been like if the South had won. Missing from most of these alternative histories is any mention of slavery, or when it does appear, as in Turtledove’s 1992 novel The Guns of the South, it appears as a foil to highlight the noble characteristics of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee. However, a promising new alternative history, which may be of interest to scholars and history buffs alike, breaks this mold and makes slavery central to its narrative.

Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines, a new Civil War alternative history set in the twenty-first century, imagines a future “dis”-United States that has avoided civil war altogether. The nation is now governed by something akin to the Crittenden Compromise, where federal law sustains slavery where it existed, while prohibiting its further extension. By the time we meet the novel’s protagonist, Victor, a former PBL (“Person Bound to Labor”), slavery has been abolished in all but the “Hard Four” slave states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and “Carolina.” In exchange for his freedom, Victor has become a bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals, scouring the free states in search of runaways who have liberated themselves from the highly industrialized–yet no less brutal–business of twenty-first century slavery. Traumatized by his childhood on just such a corporate plantation, Victor is haunted by dreams of his violent upbringing, yet he excels at his job as a slave catcher. He performs so well because he cherishes his own freedom, such as it is. Victor is not quite free; the Marshals have fitted him with a tracking device in case he decides to run. But how long will he be able to continue his horrific career? Will his cold, hard heart, that slavery has given him, finally be warmed and softened to the plight of those he pursues? And if it does, will he survive?

Resistance is a popular term these days, as it has been in slavery studies for at least half a century. Winters teases out the complicated meanings underlying individual resistance to an entrenched system of exploitation. By demonstrating a symbiotic relationship between slavery, capitalism, and American democracy, the novel challenges readers to imagine what true resistance would look like and how far enslaved people might be willing to go to achieve it.

Underground Airlines is a fast-paced thriller with the heart of a slave narrative. Winters has earned a reputation as a sci-fi/detective novelist, and this novel reflects that. Think John Grisham meets Solomon Northup. Victor is a flawed, hard-edged man who wants to do the right thing. Standing in his way is a conglomerate of detached, yet brutal, government bureaucrats who will stop at nothing to see the law carried out. And all the hard, philosophical questions concerning slavery are there: How does an enslaved person maintain a sense of his own identity and morality separate from that of his enslavers? What are the limits of the “slave community”? How does trauma shape the people we become and the choices we make? How long can a house divided against itself stand?

Winters answers that last question definitively: a long damn time. It’s 2016, but there is no sign of slavery “dying out” in the Hard Four, despite immense national and global pressure. The times have changed, but slaveholders have adapted, using modern technology to keep slavery profitable and more efficient. They have powerful lobbyists who buy Congressional support. All the corporate shenanigans that allow Starbucks and Amazon to avoid taxes and reap mega profits also allow companies like Garments of the Greater South to evade the various anti-slavery financial mechanisms that the U.S. and its global allies have instituted. And finally, injustice’s oldest allies–racism and apathy–prevent most Americans from caring too much about what happens “down there,” much less to the black people who live stigmatized and segregated in free cities throughout the rest of the country.

Sound familiar?  It should. Underground Airlines is as much a story about today as it is about the past. In that sense, it recalls the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A., which imagines a white supremacist fantasy world where the Confederacy won, but that world looks a lot like the world we actually live in. If C.S.A. challenged the sanitized text-book version of the Civil War that so many Americans grow up believing, then Underground Airlines continues this work by provoking readers to consider whether Winters’s fictionalized world differs in any meaningful way from the “real” one we inhabit everyday. For scholars of Civil War-era history, the dystopian alternative universe Winters has created feels a lot like home.


Today’s contribution to our fiction roundtable comes from Carole Emberton, associate professor of history at University of Buffalo. You can read previous and subsequent entries by using the links here in the guest editor’s introduction.

Carole Emberton

Carole Emberton is associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo. Her book Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War was published 2013. She is currently at work on a new project exploring the vernacular memories of the Civil War and emancipation contained within the Federal Writers’ Project’s Ex-Slave Narratives.

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