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You can’t write a sci-fi story about slavery without citing Octavia Butler

Underground Airlines Mulholland Books
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

At the beginning of July, Ben H. Winters received what every young writer with a big splashy new novel wants: a profile in the New York Times.

Winters is the author of Underground Airlines, a noirish thriller that takes place in an alternate history. It’s 2016, the Civil War never happened, and slavery is legal in four US states. Our main character, Victor, grew up as a slave in a Southern factory. Now he’s a bounty hunter, responsible for tracking down escaped slaves and surrendering them to the US Marshals Service.

The structure is all very Philip Marlowe meets The Man in the High Castle, but the conceit is clearly indebted to Octavia Butler, the great African-American science fiction writer whose most celebrated work, 1979’s Kindred, marries science fiction with slavery.

Underground Airlines is a smart, well-crafted book with a big, attention-grabbing conceit, and the Times profile could have been the crown jewel in a perfect publicity run. But the profile came with a less-than-ideal angle.

It ran under the headline In His New Novel, Ben Winters Dares to Mix Slavery and Sci-Fi and praised Winters’s “risky” and “brazen” choice to use science fiction to write about slavery, especially as a white man.

The Times’s framing seemed to erase Octavia Butler’s legacy entirely from the conversation, giving a white man credit for doing the same thing a black woman did decades before.

But Winters has been vocal about the enormous influence Butler has had on his work, and it shows when you read his book. Both Underground Airlines and Kindred have their merits, but Underground Airlines is in many ways most interesting when you read it in relation to Kindred, so that you can see how its forerunner influenced the way it thinks about slavery and science fiction. (Spoilers for the plots of both books follow.)

Octavia Butler is the rare woman of color to win acclaim from America’s white male sci-fi establishment

Octavia Butler is one of the most revered figures in American science fiction and fantasy, not least because she managed to carve out a space for herself as a woman of color in that notoriously male, notoriously white genre. Kindred, widely acclaimed as brilliant,” searing,” and propulsive,” is a harrowing time travel fantasy that moves back and forth between California in 1976 and antebellum Maryland.

Kindred’s main character, Dana, is a black woman novelist who finds herself linked through time to her ancestor, a white slave owner named Rufus. Every time Rufus is in mortal peril, Dana is pulled back through time to save him — and she can’t return to her own era unless she’s genuinely afraid for her life. When she finally makes her way back to 1976 for good, she’s lost an arm.

Winters has frequently cited Butler as a clear influence on Underground Airlines. In a blog post he published before that infamous Times profile, he listed all of his influences and put Butler in a class of her own:

Category 4: classics of African American literature which are ALSO speculative/”alternative-history” fiction (i.e. books that are literally sui generis, “of their own category”):

Butler, Octavia. Kindred

You can see Butler’s influence in the structure of Underground Airlines. Both Kindred and Underground Airlines use science fiction to literalize the lingering effects of slavery on the contemporary US, just as Toni Morrison did in 1987 with her ghost story Beloved. But where Kindred literalizes slavery by bringing a woman from contemporary America back in time to the antebellum South, Underground Airlines does it by bringing the antebellum South into contemporary America.

In both of these books, slavery becomes dangerously mundane

What’s striking, reading the two books back to back, is how much Underground Airlines echoes Kindred in the way it thinks about race and slavery. Like Kindred, Underground Airlines believes strongly that the legacy of slavery has left lasting scars on the contemporary American consciousness. Both books use the tools of science fiction to bring slavery into the present, to show how ordinary it can easily become and how quickly people can be made to think of human atrocities as business as usual.

Butler’s Dana, hailing from 1976, considers herself a free woman. But because she doesn’t have any free papers, when she’s in the 19th century, everyone considers her a slave. She quickly gets used to taking on that role whenever she’s in the past, working in Rufus’s plantation house and surrendering her few possessions with steadily decreasing complaints.

At the beginning of the book, Dana is deeply offended when Rufus casually uses a racial slur to refer to her. At its midpoint, she’s thinking of Rufus’s plantation house as her home. By the end, she knows that if Rufus raped her, she could find a way to forgive him for it. She has to in order to live.

This transition is emphasized by the mechanics of Dana’s time travel. She can only return to her own time when she’s genuinely afraid for her life, and at first that fear comes easily. Early on, the mere sight of a gun is enough to send her rocketing back to 1976. But as the story progresses, and she learns exactly what she can withstand and survive, she becomes increasingly trapped in the past.

She learns that slave owners are more likely to beat a slave than shoot one, so she is no longer sent home by the sight of a firearm. She learns that a brutal, violent, painful beating will not kill her, so the feeling of a whip is no longer a ticket to the present. Over time, Dana is slowly inured to anything that will not take her life. Any atrocity other than death is something that she simply has to find a way to live with.

Even when Dana at last escapes the past for good, its effects are always with her. In her final trip home, her arm is crushed into a wall. It has to be amputated. In effect, Dana’s time in the past — her time as a slave — is permanently written on her body.

“I couldn’t really let her come all the way back,” Butler said in an interview. “I couldn’t let her return to what she was, I couldn’t let her come back whole [in body] and that, I think, really symbolizes her not coming back whole [in spirit]. Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.”

In Underground Airlines, meanwhile, slavery is bureaucratized. In 2016, slaveholders speak disparagingly of the old days of whips and chains, of that damaging stereotype of violent slavery. This is modern slavery, polite slavery — a system in which slaves are efficiently and humanely shuttled from their living quarters to their workplace and back again, and are politely, efficiently stripped of their humanity every step of the way.

For Victor, the bureaucracy provides a way to anesthetize himself from the reality of his life. Victor is a slave owned by the US Marshals Service, but we don’t learn that until we’re well into the book. Instead, he presents himself to us initially as a free man, a former slave who escaped the South at 14 and never looked back. And the dull, rote paperwork of his job allows him to think of himself as an office worker grinding away in a cubicle, not a slave tracking down other runaway slaves:

This was how I fooled myself, you see? That was one of the ways I fooled myself. If I was going to do my job, he could do his! The righteous, wry refrain of a long-suffering employee, rolling his eyes at the incompetent desk jockey higher up the food chain. I understood why I did it, hard as it is now to admit, hard as it is to reconcile, as shameful.

As if he and I were — what? Coworkers? As though I were just some harried but ultimately steadfast employee, rolling my eyes at the frustrating flaws of my thick-skulled but ultimately lovable employer?

And like Butler’s Dana, Victor finds the effects of slavery written on his body. In his case, they take the form of a chip embedded into his spinal column that allows his owners to monitor him. But unlike Dana, Victor is able to erase the effects of slavery from his body. While Dana finds herself permanently maimed by her time in the antebellum South, at the end of Underground Airlines, Victor gets his chip removed.

The biggest difference between the two books lies in how they treat white slave owners

Underground Airlines offers a more redemptive vision of the evils of slavery, one that imagines it as something you can heal from. It posits that slavery might insidiously take over your very body, but there will always be the possibility of escape. In contrast, Kindred says the wounds slavery inflicts are survivable, but that you’ll never be whole again.

But the biggest difference between the two books lies in how they treat white slave owners.

One of Kindred’s richest and most chilling storylines comes from Dana’s relationship with her ancestor, Rufus. When she first meets him, Rufus is a naive child, one who casually drops racist slurs and just as casually thinks of slave children as his friends. He’s not a fundamentally bad person as a kid.

But as he grows older, Rufus is more and more poisoned by the mores of his time. He plots to keep Dana from escaping him, and has her beaten when she tries. He considers himself entitled to her presence and her belongings. He also considers himself entitled to the body of Alice Greenwood, a slave woman he professes to love and repeatedly rapes.

Rufus even forces Dana to be complicit in his rape of Alice, blackmailing her into advising Alice not to resist him or try to run away. Dana might not have responded to the blackmail, but she knows that in 1976, both Alice and Rufus are her late ancestors. Which means that she is descended from the product of these rapes, and her very existence depends on getting Alice to remain compliant with Rufus until she gives birth to Dana’s great-great-grandmother. So when Alice makes plans to run, Dana, racked with guilt, convinces her not to.

But despite all the monstrous things Rufus does, and all of the things he makes Dana do, their relationship remains casually affectionate. Dana reads to Rufus when he’s sick in bed. She confides in him. She considers him a friend or a younger brother, and she finds herself unable to hate him. “I don’t know why,” she tells him, after his cruelty drives Alice to suicide. “You worked hard to earn my hate, Rufe.”

Rufe. That one word speaks volumes, and it points to the twisted intimacy of the relationship between master and slave. Rufus holds all of the power, and he does horrible, awful things with that power, but Dana’s life is so closely entwined with his that she calls him by a pet name.

Underground Airlines is not interested in exploring the ways in which slave-owning white people might be secretly charming despite their monstrous crimes. It’s more interested in the ways they hide their monstrous crimes below a smiling, genteel surface. And one of the most cathartic moments in the book comes when Victor is able to face a middle manager at a slave-holding company and show him that this pretense at gentility is absurd:

“I never — I never did anything to hurt any Negro,” he said. “I never did.” Sincerely he said it. Believing it.

“Get down on your knees. Lace your hands behind your head.”

He lowered himself down, a series of ungainly motions, a fat, scared, graceless man trying to move unthreateningly. […] “I never …” he said, sobbing. “Never …”

“I know,” I said. “You never did any harm to any Negro person. But I’m going to tie you up now, bind your hands and feet, bind your mouth to keep you quiet, and put you in the closet.”

The middle manager is much less personally complicit in the evils of slavery than Kindred’s Rufus is; after all, unlike Rufus, he doesn’t own anyone personally. He just works there. But you can’t imagine Victor telling the middle manager that for some reason, he just can’t quite manage to hate him.

This is depersonalized slavery, 21st-century late capitalist slavery. The twisted, disturbing intimacy that Butler depicts between master and slave in the antebellum South is gone; in its place is a numbing bureaucracy that allows every party to avoid recognizing their complicity in the system, if they wish — and the moral imperative to recognize your own complicity anyway.

There may well also be extratextual reasons for Underground Airlines’ treatment of slave-owning whites. No one, after all, wants to be that self-absorbed white guy who wrote a book about slavery and talked a whole bunch about how white people were the real victims. It’s safer for Winters to steer clear.

Still, there’s a difference between making slavery all about white people and developing a sophisticated critique of the way slavery poisons everyone it touches, including slave owners, and how difficult that relationship is for people of color to navigate. Kindred is confident enough to make that distinction clearly, but with Underground Airlines, Winters doesn’t quite trust himself enough to try.

Underground Airlines should never have been called revolutionary

Underground Airlines is not, as its author knows, revolutionary. It’s not a rip-off of Kindred, certainly, but it doesn’t bring anything significantly new to the idea of using science fiction to talk about slavery.

What it is, instead, is a thoughtful and well-crafted sci-fi thriller that continues in Butler’s tradition of using science fiction as a vehicle for social commentary. And it boasts a compelling, exciting voice and some really lovely prose, which is one of the few things it can be said to have over Kindred. (Butler, who cared passionately about big ideas, was not interested in polishing her sentences, and they have a tendency to clunk.)

The New York Times did this book an enormous disservice by declaring it brave and revolutionary. It is not, and it has no pretensions of being so. It is content to stand in the enormous shadow cast by Octavia Butler and her work.