This book is an alternate history where the Civil War never happened, and so we have airlines and the Internet alongside...slavery.
Here's the thing: slavery is always an economic decision. The antebellum south needed slaves to pick cotton because no one had invented a machine which could do it. The cotton gin had been invented (mechanizing the process of removing seeds from cotton bolls) but picking the bolls still required human hands. But these days, one machine can pick an entire field of cotton in less time than an army of slaves could.
By the time the US fought the Civil War--which was an economic war, not solely about slavery--slavery was already a dying institution. It hung on in the south mainly because the south had become an economic colony of the north, and its industrialization was lagging behind. Absent the Civil War, slavery was still doomed, because machines don't need food and water and clothing and shelter--and they don't usually escape, either, and they're much cheaper over their operational lifetime than the slaves required to do the work a machine can. The only advantage a slave has over a machine is that they self-replicate.
So--in a modern industrialized society where things like cars and tape players are mass-produced, slavery is not only economically impossible but stupid. Paying someone minimum wage is cheaper than owning him, for crying out loud, because that way you don't have to provide food-shelter-clothing-etc, and someone who used slave labor to do anything would be out-competed by someone with paid laborers, because "slaves" does not mean "free labor" but "complex meat robots you have to take care of. And guard. And feed. And house. And clothe. And--"
If you have cell phones, you have robots--believe me, you have robots, because a modern cell phone cannot be assembled by hand, not if you want it to cost less than fifteen thousand dollars. Every component on a cell phone circuit board must be placed there, and a pick-and-place machine can do a circuit board in a minute or two, perfectly, all day long--while human labor would require an hour or more per board, could only work a few hours at a time, and would make mistakes to boot.
Just reading the review I can see that this is a story written to make a point; it's not meant to be entertaining. And that opinion was confirmed by this: "Underground Airlines is really another way of talking about how the real-life legacy of slavery continues to affect all of us."
Look, dude: I've never owned any slaves. All the black people I have ever met have never picked any cotton. There is no legacy of slavery. The institution of slavery in the United States ended in 1865, which was a hundred and fifty frickin' years ago. No one alive today has been victimized by it, nor has any living person profited from it. It's time to get over it.
And look at this horseshit:
The most fascinating stuff in Underground Airlines is in the details—Winters has clearly thought a lot about what the 150+ years since Lincoln’s assassination would have looked like. The result is a United States that is much more isolated from the global community. Under something called the European Consensus, most countries refuse to do business with a nation that still has slaves.Oh--so how much of Europe is being ground under the heel of the USSR? Because if the US was actually "isolated from the global community" that would imply that we didn't wade into WW1 and WW2, but had instead let Europe stand or fall on its own--and absent US involvement in European politics after WW2, the USSR would have been all over that shit.
My point is, the writer clearly has not really thought a lot about what it would look like if Lincoln had been assassinated before the war, rather than after. Because if he'd looked at economics instead of SOCIAL JUSTICE!!!111one-one, he would have realized a couple of important things. 1) that slavery doesn't exist without the economic need for it; and 2) if the US was still an economic powerhouse the other nations would fall all over themselves to do business here. "Most countries refuse to do business with a nation that still has slaves"? Does this guy live in a world without OPEC?
This is a bunch of fatuous crap.