Saturday, March 28, 2020

Three Modern Takes on Slavery

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Underground Airlines, Ben Winters
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Some really interesting takes on slavery have come out recently.

Of these three novels, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is probably getting the most press, thanks to Oprah’s Book Club. I first heard it described as science-fiction, but as a big sci-fi fan myself, I would classify it as fantasy. Hiram is a slave, whose mother has been sold away by his father and master. Hiram’s “task” is to mind his white half-brother, Hiram’s opposite in every way: slothful, disrespectful, but heir to the estate. One late night, Hiram is driving his brother home, and their carriage goes off a bridge. The heir drowns, but Hiram somehow survives. Hiram’s miraculous survival brings him to the attention of the Underground.

It turns out Hiram has inherited an unusual ability, Conducting, by which the conductor (such as Harriet Tubman) uses memory to build a bridge across distances, and lead slaves away from “the Task.” That is the part that qualifies this book as fantasy, rather than science fiction, which would have a somewhat more rigorous explanation for this magical power.
Genre nitpicking aside, it’s a compelling read. Hiram is a realistic character, a young man who makes mistakes of passion, and learns from those around him, particularly women. The heartbreak of slavery and the shakiness of freedom are portrayed in vivid colors. I have not read any of Coates’ other books, but I understand this is his first foray into fiction. Bravo!

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has also gotten a lot of press. Its format is closer to a picaresque (think Gulliver’s Travels or Candide), a series of vignettes that answer the question “what if?” in different ways. What if former slaves were “allowed” to live and work in relative freedom – provided they agreed to be sterilized? What if all-white communities thrived by using lynchings as theater? et cetera. The surreal element to this book is the existence of a literal underground railroad, tunnels and tracks leading to the different regions Whitehead describes. As long as you can suspend disbelief about this implausible infrastructure, it’s another interesting read, but personally my least favorite of these three.

Finally, Ben Winters is probably the least known to the general public, but my favorite of the three, because of his amazing speculative fiction. His Last Policeman series is a thrilling trilogy about social collapse pending the arrival of a killer asteroid. Golden State is even further out there, a twist on the ideas of Minority Report.

Underground Airlines is impressive on at least two levels. First, Winters constructs a plausible alternate reality in which the Civil War did not happen, and four states continue to allow and encourage slavery in the twenty-first century. Now, of course, the slaves work in giant prison-like factory complexes, rather than on plantations. The most impressive part of this alternate reality, to me, was the careful thought that Winters put into the economic and diplomatic aspects of this cowardly new world: who would ally with the southern states? Who would sell them their cars? And in the north, where would people import their slave-free cotton and cigarettes from? The details are dropped casually but expand one’s view of the consequences of slavery on the global economy.

Second, the novel’s plot stands alone as a strong mystery thriller. An investigator has been hired to track down a runaway slave. The twist is that the investigator himself is a failed runaway, coerced into serving his own trackers. The pursuit is heightened therefore by the pursuer’s inner conflict, and the many twists and turns it takes will keep you reading to the end.   

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