​Steampunk unearths reality

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

The electoral victory of the racist Donald Trump is no longer a nightmarish joke: it’s a hideous reality. White voters opted 58% for Trump. And despite pervasive media calumnies about the American working class, Trump won his majority not among the poor, but among those earning more than $50 000 a year. (There is, of course, some coincidence between those race and wealth/poverty divides.) If it were possible to intensify the visceral punch of Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning sixth novel, those facts should do it.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave child apparently abandoned by her runaway mother, on a Georgia cotton plantation. In the book, the underground railroad — the historical resistance network of secret trails and safe houses that helped more than 100 000 runaway slaves flee north — is given concrete form as a physical system of stations, tunnels and trains penetrating deep into the slave states of the antebellum South.

As the runaway Cora flees, her excursions at stations along the way reveal possibilities both hideous and liberating. The trope of a physical journey unpacking and satirising imagined social possibilities is as old as More’s Utopia and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (not the Disneyfied kiddie movie, but the terrifying original satire). And transport as reality and metaphor, linking not only places but to alternative realities, past and future, is not new in Whitehead’s work; it’s where he started in his 1999 debut, The Intuitionist.

Despite their erasure from most conventional histories of speculative writing, African-American writers have been present from as early as 1859 (with Martin Delaney’s Blake: the Huts of America, followed a few decades later by Charles Chestnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy) in their explorations of what might be, in alternative visions of community, identity and gender prefiguring contemporary Afrofuturism. It’s those two lines of descent — from his own previous opus, and from an important literary tradition — that Whitehead unites in this book.

As a writer, Whitehead is fluent in the languages of genres but never employs them only for surface effect. It was possible to read his previous book, Zone One, as merely a zombie novel. If you did so, you had a fun ride but missed a great deal of very incisive thinking about authoritarianism as a survival trait. In the same way, you could read The Underground Railroad as a wonderfully constructed piece of steampunk fantasy, including tough, convincing characters and a thrilling chase ahead of the monstrous slave-catcher Ridgeway but you’d miss a great deal more.

We’ve met Southern steampunk fantasy before, for example in the 1999 Will Smith/ Kevin Kline movie The Wild, Wild West: a film whose cast spent a great deal of time smugly nudging and winking about their “ironic” treatment of race and how far they were able to push the envelope. Klein played an ingenious, bookish inventor-detective; Smith, his handsome, smart-mouthed stud of a sidekick. Is that enough non-envelope-pushing stereotypes, or do I need to go on?

The Underground Railroad is run through with a bitter vein of irony, nudges and winks about nothing. Its first chapters, the origin stories of Cora, her mother Mabel and her grandmother Ajarry, are unflinching in their descriptions of the brutality of enslavement and plantation life. Right from the start, the nature of the violence inflicted is made clear: it is gendered violence in both its rape culture and its policing of black sexuality; and it is capitalist violence, an inevitable corollary of viewing human beings as commodities — the labour input towards the generation of profit.

Unlike some other Oprah Book Club Picks, Whitehead deals with rape, torture and murder without purple prose. His descriptions are terse, matter of fact and horrifying. There are points where it’s hard not to flinch or turn away from the page.

That’s where the fantasy genre label fails. When writer Nnedi Okorafor spoke to me earlier this year, she pointed out that, despite the term “magical realism” often being used to sideline non-Western speculative writers, it is sometimes the only appropriate one: “because those things are not fantasy. They are real to communities.” The depraved violence of slave masters and colonialists was never and is still not a fantasy.

When Cora arrives in South Carolina (and though she has companions, she is never anybody’s sidekick), she finds apparent Utopia: desegregated public streets, consumer goods, education, healthcare and employment. For a time, Cora works as an actor in an educational diorama, alongside a waxwork. She is paid to enact black stereotypes in a liberal revisionist history replete with erasures and sanitisation. Only slowly does it seep in how the ostensibly kindly policing of black knowledge and sociality enforces another kind of bondage and further atrocities. The face of Utopia masks a terrible dystopia.

That South Carolinan dystopia is a city imagined by the writer but what happens there really happened. The rail line can stop anytime, anywhere, and the patterns of South Carolina — the erasure of identity and pathologisation of difference — can repeat and recur, even into our own time.

As Cora’s journey progresses, the magical, metaphorical role of the railroad is increasingly foregrounded. It is made not only of iron, bricks and mortar but of the collective effort and will of all those, black and white, whose coming together builds change. Its route is mapped by the freely exercised agency of all those who reject bondage and racism.

And it lies under the United States, just as the savage exploitation of its makers and riders still underlies and enables the lavish wealth of the country’s Trumps.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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