American novelists have been disturbing comforting denials about the evils of racism since the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Ben H. Winters’ carries on that proud tradition with his latest novel, Underground Airlines, a brilliant exploration of the relationship between political compromise and personal complicity. Winters graciously offered to answer my questions about his writing.
Hickman: I would like to begin by asking about the overlap between science fiction and mystery genres. Your most recent novel Underground Airlines is both an alternative history and noir mystery. What drew you to write in the interstice between these genres?
Winters: I know I am frequently categorized as a science fiction author, which is just fine by me, but I tend to self-identify as a mystery novelist. My breakthrough work was a mystery called The Last Policeman, in which a young police detective is pursuing a case even though the world is about to be obliterated by an asteroid. I thought of it as a high-concept detective story, but obviously it is science-fiction also. Similarly with Underground Airlines, which to my mind is a thriller – espionage – bounty hunter story, with social interest and thematic resonance, set in an alternate version of the United States. So yes, it is science fiction of a kind, but I don’t see it as genre-bending, so much as a mystery story with a speculative backdrop that can be considered a sort of science fiction.
Hickman: Underground Airlines is absolutely riveting reading. Let me express my appreciation and that of many other readers. But I confess to being reluctant to read anything that could be called alternative history because so much truly execrable alternative history has been published. What Next Gingrich and William Forstchen have co-written comes to mind. Why weren’t you deterred by possible association with all the schlocky alternative history in print?
Winters: I haven’t read those guys. I am familiar with Mr. Gingrich’s alternate-future writing, in which he has advanced the fantastical narrative that Donald Trump would be a good president. There are a lot of alt-history novels I have enjoyed—I’m thinking of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon and Fatherland by Robert Harris and of course The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. But my primary interest in writing Airlines wasn’t really in alternate history, per se, the world-building and re-imagining of history, although that’s obviously important to the grounding of the work. My big interest was in the relationship between our actual reality and our history; the distressing extent to which attitudes and institutions of slavery are still with us.
Hickman: ‘What If Slavery Was Never Abolished’ is also the premise in the 2004 faux documentary film C.S.A. The Confederate States of America. Unlike that film however, your novel posits slavery as persisting only in the ‘Hard Four’ of North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. Why did you make that plot choice?
Winters: I am embarrassed to say that I have not seen C.S.A.; once I become aware of it, I made the choice to avoid it, so as not to let it influence my own work. As for me, I was very interested in the issue of complicity — of how Northerners in the antebellum south allowed themselves to live with (and even benefit from) the horror of slavery, even those who were ideologically opposed to it. The issue of course extends to our own time, when we allow ourselves to be comfortable with any range of ongoing horrors unfolding far away, obviously including police violence in black communities. So to service those themes the book had to take place in an America that was evolved from the real America of the 1700s and 1800s, where there were slave states and free, not one monolithic slave-holding culture.
Hickman: We have heard a lot from commentators in the current election cycle complaining about the intransigence of our political class, about their unwillingness to reach compromise. Am I wrong to read Underground Airlines as a cautionary tale about compromise? Is that why in the novel you describe Georgia as a free state but Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport and US Highway 20 remain “quasi-southern”?
Winters: Oh sure. Compromise is a big theme, compromise and complicity. How much we let ourselves know, how much we let go on and pretend isn’t happening. There are different kinds of compromise, of course; it is lauded by some as a political value, but no one would look back on (say) the Missouri Compromise and say, “well done, America. Way to extend the nightmare of slavery for another bunch of decades.” I’m interested in personal compromise and it’s overlap with political compromise, and the way those dynamics played out in early America and the way they play out now. My hero, Victor, his whole life is about compromise — what he tells himself he has to do, and how he emerges from that.
Hickman: By tradition noir mystery is a vehicle for telling stories about official corruption without violating the ideological taboo against criticizing capitalism itself. Did you violate that taboo with Underground Airlines?
Winters: Wow. I don’t know. This question seems above my pay grade. There is no question, I guess, that Airlines offers an implicit critique of capitalism; the jobs done by enslaved people in the novel—slaughterhouse work, sweatshop work, exhausting field work—are jobs that are done by real people in the real world, all day long, and they provide the base line of comfortable existence for the rest of us, and for very very low pay. That thin margin, between very very low pay and slavery, is often very thin indeed. As with the racial violence, the capitalist economy in the book is like it is in our own reality, but worse, but not that much worse.
Hickman: Could you have the told the story any other way?
Winters: I’m sure I could have. I tried. I tried this story a lot of ways. But stories really do wrestle themselves into their own shape, and I found that this noir tradition to be the right shape for this thing; combined of combined with strands from the espionage tradition (especially le Carré, the undercover stuff) with strands of Octavia Butler, strands of Ralph Ellison, strands of the slave narratives.
Hickman: “I’ve got layers…I go way down,” says the protagonist at one point in Underground Airlines. Was I reading that correctly as a comment on the complexity of racism in America?
Winters: I think that phrasing was more about Victor, about his starting to understand how much of himself he had shoved away, out of sight of his conscious mind. But of course racism does indeed go way down, and way back, too. What I think a lot of people don’t recognize, or don’t want to recognize, is that racism goes so far beyond individual racists committing specific racist actions. This is part of what I learned researching and writing this novel, the extent to which racist attitudes are built into the institutions of the country. Our founding centuries were slave centuries. We have a responsibility to reckon with it, with the reach of these facts, the legacy of them. We all have that responsibility.
Hickman: So earlier you noted the connection between personal and political compromise. Is that part of whatever goes “way down?”
Winters: Sure. Absolutely. Victor has made this very specific, very explicit kind of compromise: I will do this terrible thing (work for the Marshals) in order to avoid this terrible fate (returning to slavery). And he knows he has good reasons for doing it, but he also knows it’s terrible and wrong, and that’s what compromise is. I just think Victor’s compromise is one very striking example of a process that we all make, all the time, whether we think about it or not. As members of a society, we are participating in the compromises that society has made; that’s a political decision as well as being a personal one. It’s an individual decision as well as being a collective one.