What if the American Civil War had never occurred? What if one early assassination united a nation before it had a chance to be torn apart? What if slavery was still practiced in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Carolina? This is the premise of Underground Airlines. It's a great premise that elicits plenty of thought, but the execution leaves something to be desired.
Underground Airlines is a thriller: politics, cops, chase scenes, double crosses—tension in general. I'm not a big fan of this style, but I was certainly willing to give it a go because I thought the plot was intriguing. Ben H. Winters nails the mood: late night meetings in the city, the sound of cars swooshing through rainwater in the distance, faces covered in shadow—it was impossible not to see much of the novel as scenes from a movie. Underground Airlines is a thriller with a great concept, but in the end it's still a thriller; a book for fans of Grisham, Coben, Baldacci, or—hell, I don't know what I'm talking about, I've never read any of those authors. As far as I know, they write nothing like this.
My main complaint about Underground Airlines comes in the way of alternate history. In this novel, historical and political events have changed. Because the Civil War was not fought, laws were put in effect to appease Southern interests. Texas claims sovereignty and tensions between it and the States are high. Much of the world, especially Europe, has placed sanctions on the United States for its continued acceptance of people as property. Only in the last four years has Japan lifted its embargo. And yet, aside from these political differences, one would not notice a difference between the alternate history of Underground Airlines and our own: towering metropolises, luxury cars, smartphones with all the best apps. Michael Jackson was still the king of pop. Rockwell still painted a picture of little black girl in Arkansas. To Kill a Mockingbird was a sensation, with a slightly altered plot. Rap music, Ralph Ellison, James Brown, baggy pants, Martin Luther King, Jr., Zora Neale Hurston, the list goes on. I am willing to accept that some of these things might have come about in one way or another despite the existence of slavery; I cannot fathom how so little has changed, particularly given how much slavery must have had an effect on these people and American culture. And that's where the story, despite its imaginative plot, shows it lacks much imagination at all. This is an opportunity to paint the world drastically different, to show how the United States could have been a backwards nation with little culture, secluded from the outside world that moves with swiftness into the future. Instead we have our same world, with that trivial issue of slavery nagging us. It's much like our own world, I guess. Slavery does still exist in some forms, even in the US. Yet, for many, its either unknown or a nuisance. It's something that might appear on the news, or might show up in a documentary as we flip through the television channels, stopping only for the briefest moment before we realize this isn't an adaptation of a Grisham novel. And maybe that's part of what's going on in Underground Airlines. Maybe life does go on while slavery rages. But really? “Northerners” playing Michael Jackson on their Samsung phone while driving around Indianapolis in their Nissan? That's just unimaginative.