SciFi and Fantasy Book Club discussion

The Underground Railroad
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Group Reads Discussions 2018 > "Underground Railroad" Full Discussion *Spoilers*

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message 1: by Allison, Fairy Mod-mother (new)

Allison Hurd | 13043 comments Mod
We have so much to talk about!

What did you think of the book? What about the scifi elements? How was the subject handled?


Suzanne | 86 comments I'm not sure if I can express this well, but I didn't like the scifi elements, mostly because to me, they took away from the seriousness of the subject matter. Slavery was awful - horrible things happened, and I felt like adding the fantasy/science fiction aspect made things feel kind of less real.


message 3: by Gary (last edited May 15, 2018 11:00AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Gary (plaidchuck) | 55 comments The Scifi/fantasy/anachronistic elements were pretty interesting. From what I could tell he was having Cora move through different time period of the trials and tribulations of the black experience in America, e.g. the beginning and peak of slavery, lynching/the KKK, the eugenics movement/Tuskegee experiments, segregation (what I interpreted as her time spent in Indiana).

The actual literal railroad I feel did not work as well. It seemed to be just a plot device or means of her to travel quickly through the country.

I admit not having read many reviews prior that I was expecting this to be more of an adventure with in-depth detail and futuristic elements on how the railroad worked. Boy am I naïve.


message 4: by Ivy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ivy | 15 comments I thought of the train as magical realism rather than science fiction...not sure if that's really important or not but that's my two cents.

I enjoyed the fantastical elements. The subject was so dark, its such a terrible period in American history. Without the fantastical stuff, the only emotions I would have felt reading this would have been fear and dread. The addition of hope...not just from the folks of the Underground Railroad but an actual magical train...provided some variety and light in an otherwise dark narrative.

I can see, though, how fans of historical fiction would not like that.


aPriL does feral sometimes  (cheshirescratch) | 519 comments The museum dioramas was a kind of literal and terrible ‘science and fiction’ in several ways. So many horrors in this book, but for some reason, the dioramas caused me to put the book down and weep.


message 6: by Gary (last edited May 15, 2018 11:12AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Gary (plaidchuck) | 55 comments Yeah magic realism sounds about right. The only things that really irked me as far as the writing was the tendency to jump around sometimes even mid-paragraph to different points in the past or to go into random digressions on the back story for xyz minor character. That's probably more an issue of my reading proficiency or taste though.

Also the chapter devoted to the doctor seemed like complete filler to me. We know the guy has questionable morals being involved in eugenics and the syphilis experiments, did we really need being told that he participated in grave robbing as well in college?


Sedat Yıldız | 73 comments I must say that this book wasn't for me, still finished it but kept zoning out while reading. It's sensitive topic and I don't have an issue with that but I didn't like writing style and pace.

I wanted more dialog less description about every minor character's background in 3 page. It felt like unnecessary and only served page count increase. Ex: at the beginning of the book we learn of so many characters and their background and then they are gone no more mentioning of them ever again.

If I were to explain it like this is a video game, I wanted something like first person experience(I wanted to see things from Cora's eyes more...) but it felt like one moment we are experiencing from Cora's eyes and the next moment we opened google and searching the lore of side character, constantly! If that makes sense lol.


Tomislav | 134 comments Allison wrote: "What about the scifi elements?"

It might be a semantic point, but there are no scifi elements. However, there are two elements that I consider speculative.

The underground railroad that transports Cora from one locale to the next is literally a railroad that runs under the ground. The nature of this artifact is not really of concern to the novel, except to say it was built secretly by blacks and sympathetic whites. Beyond this being not a historical reality, it would be infeasible to build and would not be concealable once built. It is a literary device for moving Cora from one setting to the next, not an artifact being proposed for realistic consideration. This literary device indicates magic realism, which I consider part of fantasy.

There are the differing alternate histories of each of the settings. Now, I feel that alternate history is a form of speculative fiction distinct from both fantasy and science fiction, with its own tropes and devices. There is no particular point-of-departure from true history in the alternate settings. And there is no indication of a multiverse explanation for the coexistence of the alternate settings in one universe. The settings are intended as emotionally and morally representative of other events that were real. Once again, I feel that this is a literary device, not an alternate reality being proposed for consideration. I think it is probably safe to say that Whitehead is more concerned with what is, than with what might have been.

This is primarily literary fiction. The speculative genre elements point towards magic realism, rather than science fiction.


Chris | 1046 comments Regarding genre, I have a complicated position. I am glad that we could read this book together. It does have some speculative elements. I don't want to see definition used as a reason to exclude books that may be on the margins. However, I also don't like the empire building of F&SF advocates who want to plant the flag and claim as much territory as their own. "You don't like science fiction? Well, did you like X? That's science fiction!"

One reference in the book felt like a great framing, an overview of what Whitehead was doing — the mention of Gulliver's Travels. Another one that came to me was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both involve tours of various societies and critical commentary relevant to the authors' own countries and times.


message 10: by Allison, Fairy Mod-mother (new)

Allison Hurd | 13043 comments Mod
It's really interesting for me to see how everyone is filing this book! Glad at least many found it worthwhile, even if the sci fi elements were a little more sparse than we were collectively led to believe :)

I'll add another question: What really stuck out to you from reading this? Any themes, ideas, events or character choices that were unexpected or touched upon "new" ground for you?


Kristin B. Bodreau (krissy22247) | 719 comments Gary wrote: "Yeah magic realism sounds about right. The only things that really irked me as far as the writing was the tendency to jump around sometimes even mid-paragraph to different points in the past or to ..."

Agree 100% on the jumping around. It took away from the urgency of the story. The narrative would come to a high tension moment, and then you were dropped back to a previous point and had to build momentum all over again. That really irked me. Especially since most of it did end up being filler.

This was important subject matter, but the style wasn't my favorite. Still, glad to have read it.

To answer Allison's question, I'm not sure if anything felt new. I haven't read many slave narratives, but I'm passably familiar with the history. I will say that I wasn't as familiar with the medical experiments. Generally I associate that more with Nazi Germany, but once it was brought up it wasn't particularly surprising.

There were a few passages that caught my fancy. I love finding quotes in a story that resonate with me. (And the fact that kindle lets me highlight them and link them to Goodreads.) Here are a couple I particularly loved.

The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.

“I’m what the botanists call a hybrid,” he said the first time Cora heard him speak. “A mixture of two different families. In flowers, such a concoction pleases the eye. When that amalgamation takes its shape in flesh and blood, some take great offense. In this room we recognize it for what it is—a new beauty come into the world, and it is in bloom all around us.”



message 12: by Lee (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lee Vernon | 6 comments Like others I found the train a bit unnecessary and not really sure how it added to the book apart from acting as a handy plot device to move Cora from place to place and make the Underground a bit more literal. To me, it wasn't fantasy or sci-fi in the sense of other books but I'm open to being convinced.

What really drove the horror home for me was the normality of the atrocities and how it was all just part of everyday society. Yet even then, there was always hope and people always fighting for a future that seemed utterly impossible. The eugenics bit was also a bit of an eye opener as the "civil" response to slavery and sadly totally unsurprising. The prose was a bit up and down, but the subject matter makes it a book that everyone should read


Nicol | 488 comments Let me start by saying I love historical fiction. After finishing this audio book, I approached it as historical fiction just the same way Outlander is. Sure both have a sprinkle of fantasy but it’s just a plot device for a little bit of time travel. And I do love time travel. So I thought for sure this book would be my jam. But it wasn’t. Although I feel like the author did an excellent job of describing each time period and atrocities well, I never quite connected with Cora. Or any other character for that matter. It was cold and lacking human connection. Homegoing (just historical fiction) was able to draw me in and connect with each character and the author did that in just one chapter for each character. Here we have a whole book of one main character and I never felt connected with her. I listened to it on audio with one of my favorite narrators Bahni Turpin, and even her magical voice couldn’t connect me to Cora.


Sabrina | 365 comments For me, this book was more historical fiction than Science Fiction, but this did not bother me and I like the broad spectrum of this group.

Gary wrote: "From what I could tell he was having Cora move through different time period of the trials and tribulations of the black experience in America, e.g. the beginning and peak of slavery, lynching/the KKK, the eugenics movement/Tuskegee experiments, segregation (what I interpreted as her time spent in Indiana)...."

I’ve never heard about the actual underground railroad nor about the syphilis studies, though both do not surprise me. I always felt a little lost in time and wondered what time period the book referred to. Gary’s comment therefore made some sense to me, though I haven’t found any references / discussion about it. Concerning references, the book appeared well researched, but I would have liked a statement (or some references) about the actual events in this book (or what kind of “literal freedom” the author employed).


Finally, I think, that this book would have had a greater impact on me, if it weren’t written in this impersonal and detached style. Oh, I almost forgot the jumping around, yes I did not like that either…


message 15: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Johnson | 6 comments I feel that what Whitehead really did with this was use the railroad as a connection to all of the different tomorrows slavery could have (or did) lead to. I found the book to be very powerful and Cora was a great protagonist. It was both strangely sad and satisfying to learn that her mother had not abandoned her, the her "escape" was both more final and the result of happenstance.


aPriL does feral sometimes  (cheshirescratch) | 519 comments Tim wrote: "I feel that what Whitehead really did with this was use the railroad as a connection to all of the different tomorrows slavery could have (or did) lead to. I found the book to be very powerful and ..."

Agree!


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