Underground Airlines

As well as Sarong Party Girls, I bought Underground Airlines last week, and what better place to read it than on a plane, while growing peevish that the in-flight entertainment system was crashing every ten minutes?

Underground Airlines is a pun on the Underground Railway, which is something I’d never heard of until a few years ago: the system that smuggled escaped slaves from the US into Canada. Underground Airlines updates that metaphor into an alternate reality, where slavery was never abolished in the southern states of the US, and everything has shifted slightly from where we are today. 

It hasn’t shifted that much, in this conception of a different universe. Starbucks is still a successful enterprise. Japanese cars have still defeated Detroit. Google Earth (or at least “a familiar icon”) is available. The economies of the South have remained labour-intensive, because with slave labour that reduces the need to progress (and so in this world, China buys it’s cheap t-shirts from America, rather than the other way round) and there are further wrinkles, like the attempted secession of Texas because the rest of the Union is not liberal enough.

As described, it could be a satire of the modern world and the failures of it to progress beyond what would have happened if the Confederate South hadn’t been defeated. (There is a literal underground railway, shortly after it’s explained why the Underground Airlines don’t ever use planes.) Instead, it’s a very tense thriller about escaped slaves, with a series of evwr-increasingly cruel twists. 

Most books I’ve read recently run out of steam about half way through, and I was expecting the same from this, but Underground Airlines stays taut until the very last pages. Possibly the very last twist is weaker than the rest, but given the work to establish this different world and maintain the suspense and tension is really impressive. 

What’s brutal is the edifice built up to explain how a slave industry could function; the amendments to the Constitution, the ways the police forces enforce and co-opt, and most depressingly, how every single person is compromised (apart from a seven year old boy). At least the ending isn’t a complete defeat.


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