Saturday, July 29, 2017

Nothing To Be Afraid of Here: Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines

The recent furor over HBO’s announcement of a proposed TV series to be called Confederate that imagines a world where the South seceded from the Union and has kept slavery as an institution to the present day is puzzling for any number of reasons. The objections seem to be to the very concept of the show, created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), that it would be offensive to black viewers and exploitative of the subject of slavery. (Black writer Roxane Gay labelled it "slavery fan fiction" in a New York Times op-ed.) But that argument ignores the obvious fact that the idea is not exactly a novel one in fiction. Science-fiction writer Harry Turtledove wrote an epic ten-book series on this very subject in his Southern Victory series (1998-2007). Kevin Willmot’s CSA: The Confederate States of America was a 2004 film mockumentary which posited a British-made documentary examining the present-day CSA, an empire that spans Cuba, Mexico and Central America, and the realities of its racist culture, complete with a revised history of America. (In the film's imagined history Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others left to go live in a free Canada and President Abraham Lincoln also ended up there after being free from imprisonment by the Confederacy.) And last July saw the release of Ben H. Winters’ similarly themed novel Underground Airlines (Mulholland Books). So why the fuss about an idea that is hardly a radical departure from the literary or visual norm? The answer might be because it hits too close to home.

It is worth noting that the political correctness and timidity underlying the criticism of Confederate have already take root in the present-day popular culture and in recent SF adaptations. Amazon’s maladroit TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, dispensed with, among the many unfortunate changes it made to the book, the idea that slavery is legal again in an America now ruled by the unholy alliance of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, which in Dick’s created world won the Second World War. (Considering their noxious racial theories, reviving slavery in America would make perfect sense for them.) And Showtime’s (largely faithful) TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale excised all scenes of African Americans being found and deported from Gilead, the militant theocracy which has supplanted the democratic U.S.A. (African American characters are now, like white Americans, used as servants or breeding stock as the wives of the male theocrats running the show are infertile.)

In and of themselves, the changes to the source materials are not necessarily the problems with the two series. The Man in the High Castle is badly acted and more than a little illogical, as instead of a forbidden, underground SF novel which imagines a world won by the Allies (our world), and which is the fulcrum of Dick’s poetic book, the TV show has its characters schlep around various banned film prints, some of which hail from our reality. That makes little sense because film reels would be much harder to hide from the authorities and would also require a projector to show them, an unlikely, cumbersome tool for an effective resistance to utilize. As for The Handmaid’s Tale, the structure of its invented world, where the fertile women are impregnated by men in an elaborate ceremony in which those women are placed beneath the wives so as to simulate the wives’ giving birth, comes across as sillier than in the novel. Besides, Americans are far too individualistic to submit to religious edict as The Handmaid’s Tale depicts. Far more likely would be their society's falling apart if the technology ceased to work, as most dystopian American SF novels have it. But the alterations to those novels regarding the fate of the African-American community in the U.S. do give an indication as to why HBO’s new series has become so controversial before anyone has even starting making it. Does depicting 21st-century slavery or subjugation of African Americans equal endorsing the idea or cheapening it? It appears that many people feel it does. But if they read the provocative Underground Airlines, they might see why a skilled author would use that particular alternate history trope to get at why racism still persists, even, or especially, in a post-Obama America.

A scene from Amazon's The Man in the High Castle.

Unlike many alternate history scenarios where the South wins the Civil War, Underground Airlines, recently out in paperback, imagines that the war never actually happened. (I won’t reveal the reason for the potential reader as it’s particularly ingenious and rife with irony.) But over the decades, slavery has fallen away from many of the Southern states such as Georgia, which had its own unique version of the Freedom Riders, leaving only what’s called “The Hard Four”  Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and a unified Carolina  as the only states still practicing this odious way of life. The book’s protagonist, Victor, a black man, who was formerly a Person Bound to Labor (nicknamed "peeb"), the sanitized modern term for "slave," is now employed as a federal marshal/bounty hunter tasked with hunting down escaped slaves and exposing the people and organizations who help them escape via the Underground Airline. (That’s not meant literally, but as a semantic update of the Underground Railway we all know from our history books.) If Victor does not do as he is bid, he will be sent back to the Carolina ‘plantation’ he escaped from; nor can he flee as he has an embedded chip inside him which can track his every movement. It’s Victor’s hunt for an escaped peeb named Jackdaw, which brings him to Indianapolis, and some startling, disturbing revelations about the U.S.A. that set the plot in motion.

I must confess that I didn’t buy the idea that slavery could prevail to the present as depicted in CSA: The Confederate States of America as, historically, all slave-holding societies have eventually abandoned the practice. But that fake doc was a little too jokey and unsubtle – its imitation TV commercials, utilizing slave-era stereotypes, were especially egregious – and overly fond if its ‘imaginativeness’. It was hardly in the class of Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984) or Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver (1995), stellar examples of the mockumentary genre. Underground Airlines, by comparison, is so well written that you’ll quickly dispense with any qualms you might have about its believability. Winters’ portrait of his world is so vivid and well thought-out that it rings true from the get-go, particularly as he acknowledges that the particulars of slavery would have to be massaged for their optics in a world of movies and television, the popular cultures which also make their peace with and/or exploit the grimness of what goes on around them. (The peebs in the novel get regular meal breaks and can only be worked for so many hours before they must be allowed to rest. Hell, they’re practically unionized.) But Winters also comments trenchantly on the realities of a country whose white majority supposedly frowns on the few states that still enslave blacks. In Underground Airlines, despite the mixing of blacks and whites, African Americans are followed around in department stores when they shop, stopped by the cops for no good reason and generally treated like second-class citizens. (Victor is an unfortunate example of that prejudice, as evidenced by his fraught relationship with his mysterious boss/handler, Mr. Bridge.) Hey, doesn’t that world sound familiar? And if Underground Airlines seemed a tad exaggerated at the time of its publication in its suggestion that the novel’s fictional America actually functions as a mirror image of the present-day United States –  Barack Obama was still president at the time, after all – well, with Donald Trump in the White House, it seems much less so now.

Author Ben H. Winters.
And while the novel’s characters, white and black, including Martha – a white woman with a mixed-race child, who crosses paths with and becomes entwined with Victor – are well- drawn, Underground Airlines is also meticulous and careful in what it tells you about the world outside the U.S. The country is under sanctions from the rest of the rest of the world, retarding its access to some technology – CD players are not available to American consumers; cassettes are still the norm – but some nations (Israel, Japan), have flouted that ban on commercial contact with the U.S., which left the U.N. in the early 70s before she could be expelled from that world organization. And U.S. involvement in Vietnam is replaced by a war much closer to home. We don’t get any more info about American history or the world at large than Victor, Martha or the other Americans they interact with would know or be concerned about. Those few paltry details may not entirely satisfy a long-time reader of alternate history like me but they make thematic sense, centered as the novel is around a hidebound, isolated country. (I do wonder: if Israel is not a patron state, much less an ally, of the U.S., as a sanctioned America would not have the billions to support her, then who helps the Jewish state? And if the U.S. is not a player on the international stage, what does that mean for the realities of Russian or Chinese hegemonic designs or actual power in this invented world? Unless a sequel to Underground Airlines is in the works – I almost want one – we’ll never know.)

I was tickled pink, though, by the revelation in the book that the end destination for the escaped slaves of the Underground Airline just happens to be the city of Côte Saint-Luc, Quebec, near Montreal, and the place where I grew up. I suspect, considering that Winters himself is Jewish and that Côte Saint-Luc was a largely Jewish town when I was a kid and is still heavily so now, that this is Winters’s sly nod to the prominent Jewish financial support for the Civil Rights movement and personal involvement with the Freedom Riders – those Americans, two-thirds of whom were Jews, who went to the South to help blacks register to vote, and, sometimes, like the murdered Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, tragically paid with their lives. It's a tribute, too, to Canada's prominent role as the final destination of the original Underground Railroad.

The brilliance of Underground Airlines and the effective way in which Winters treats the inherently suspenseful material – Victor’s mission to apprehend Jackdaw has its thrilling aspects –make it a compelling read, indeed, and the best alternate history I’ve read since C.J. Sansom’s riveting 2012 novel Dominion, about a Nazi-occupied Britain. Both books have a jagged edge to them that pricks the reader where his or her conscience is and makes us wonder what we would do to help our fellow (black or Jewish) citizens if we lived in the societies so indelibly depicted in the novels. (Despite his latest novel’s success, Winters is still best known for The Last Policeman trilogy, a dystopian look at an Earth soon to be wiped out by an asteroid and the dogged cop still trying to do his job amidst the ensuing chaos.) The answers in Underground Airlines are not easy, palatable ones and the book, which concludes with something of a cliffhanger, lingers disturbingly in the mind long afterwards. It’s also a reminder that no subject should be off-limits to the imagination. (I certainly would not read books about the Nazis triumphing in the Second World War if I felt that was the case.)

As for the issue that Winters is a white writer who has the nerve to speculate on the subject of slavery, well, it turns out not to have been an issue after all: only a few minor critiques revolved around cultural appropriation and they were offset by fulsome praise in major, influential black media organs, notably the prestigious New York Amsterdam News. (Social media, which often acts as a catalyst for ill-informed or unfair criticism of artistic endeavours, doesn’t, I think, pay as much attention to controversial literature. The visual media, movies and television, are what reaches more folk, after all.) Reportedly, Winters is adapting his book into a TV series, which might make Confederate redundant. But even if it doesn’t, and providing they don’t cave to the pressure of their critics and cancel the project, the makers of that HBO series should point to Underground Airlines to allay the fears and prejudices of the likes of Roxane Gay. Reading it should quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that this book should not have been written. Like the best art in any medium, it afflicts the comfortable and complacent and makes them think. Higher praise cannot be offered.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on October 6 he will be starting to teach a course on fact based movies and why they often take liberties with history. He’ll also be lecturing on Israeli cinema in London, Ontario, beginning on Sept. 5.

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