The great game in science fiction is titled What If, and it is perhaps one of the things that topples a mainstream novel over into the SF category. What if we have an atomic war classifies Shute's On The Beach as science fiction, while what if certain nasty political things happen brings 1984 and When the Kissing Had to Stop into the same category. This process even works in time past so that many of the what if the French invade Britain novels, such as The Battle of Dorking are considered ur-SF by the critical aggrandisers.

All of these themes have one factor in common -- extension into the future at the time of writing. When the what if game is played in the past it assumes entirely new dimensions. And is entirely separate from, though it can be related to, the What If There Is Time Travel game. Wells first played this one with his time machine that travelled forward in time to give us glimpses of a fixed future, dips into the constantly rushing, always unchangeable, river of time. Other time trips to the future followed, such as Wright's The World Below, and the variation of alternate possible futures considered in Williamson's The Legion of Time in 1938.

In The Legion of Time there appears, for the first time in a novel-length magazine serial, a concept different from the river of time theory. What if time is more like an ever-branching tree with countless possible futures? If each decision we make affects the future then there must be an infinite number of futures. In the river-of-time concept the future is immutable. If, on the way to work in the morning, we decide to take the bus instead of the tube and are killed in a bus accident, then that death was pre-destined. But if time is ever-branching then there are two futures -- one in which we die in the accident and another where we live on, having taken the tube.1 It therefore follows consistently, or at least consistently to a science fiction author's mind, that if there are an infinite set of futures why there must then be an infinite set of pasts as well. And, if this be true, then a time traveller can go back to alter the past and thereby alter the present. Or a present. Or a hideously large number of presents. Or is there such a thing as a single 'present' if this theory is to be considered?

All of this led to a great number of SF stories located in the misty borderland between time travel and multiple time tracks. Paradoxes abounded; what happens if you kill your grandfather? -- and interesting permutations such as Heinlein's "All You Zombies" where every single character, male, female and joint offspring, is the same character. (This theme is examined differently by the same author in "By His Bootstraps".)

Out of all this evolved the concept of the parallel-world theme. As in all of science fiction there are no hard and fast rules. Whenever someone attempts to draw up rules or definitions someone else instantly breaks them. In the roughest way then, the theme of parallel worlds can be broken down into two main categories and one sub-category. They are:

A. is the far simpler one to handle and much used in the pulps of the 'forties and 'fifties. In this there are an infinite number of parallel worlds, all brought about by differing events in the past. They are infinitely close yet infinitely distant, since each has its distinct 'vibration energy' or other meaningless term that keeps them apart. Enter machine that permits motion sideways in time to other parallel worlds, enter nifty action plots as well. Neither the past nor the future is relevant to these stories since motion between them is always in the present.

B. is the more complex and the more fun to both write and read. If B. (b) does not enter into the plot directly there is always an awareness of it which is why I do not classify it as a separate category. These are the What If stories where a change was made in the past to give us a different present. What if the South had won the American Civil War? Moore's Bring the Jubilee is the answer to that one. What if the Germans and Japanese had won World War II? Dick's Man in the High Castle mulls this one over.

Both of these books depend upon a change in military history, this being the simplest and easiest way to bring about radical changes in society. But, as in the new history, we have new considerations in science fiction. Culture and philosophy can be as interesting and vital as a list of battles won and lost. Religion is of course the great divider, as we see in Aldiss's "Danger: Religion!" I dipped a toe into theological waters myself in a story titled "The Wicked Flee". What I wanted was a world where the Catholic church ran everything. I got this by the simple -- and simple-minded -- device of killing both Martin Luther and Henry VIII in their youth. (Ignoring, for the sake of the story, the historical thrusts that permitted the acceptance of their changes.)

Plotting a parallel-world story must, of necessity, rest upon one of two choices. The author can make his change in the past, then speculate upon what changes this might bring about. (A volcanic eruption blows up all Europe in the early fifteenth century. Modern civilisation must therefore come from the East and not the West.) Or the author may want to set a story in some exotic present -- so how must he alter the past to bring this about? (The world is populated by pig-like humanoids. At the precisely worked out moment in the past a pig eats the first intelligent hominid offspring.)

These slightly exotic examples reveal that the parallel-world theme can be a remarkably satisfying and rewarding area of speculation. It has to be played to very exacting rules and no cheating can be allowed. It is very much like a chess game. Before the first chess piece is moved there must be an infinite number of ways that the game can be played. Yet with the simple move of KP to K4 the future possibilities are halved. And so on with each move.

I can demonstrate the concept far better than I can explain it. If, in doing so, I can give some insight into the warped synapses of the science fiction writer's mind we can consider this as a fringe benefit. The book under discussion is titled A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

Genesis. I do not remember quite what circumstances raised the question, but I do remember the question quite clearly. Would it be possible to build a transatlantic tunnel? Technically, I imagined it would be. Modern technology and materials would surely enable construction of a tunnel at continental shelf depths. As to abyssal depths --why the SF invention of the Stronger Material should take care of that if the question did arise. Physically it could be built. I suppose in the '30s the speculation would have ended there and the story would have been written in a burst of hunger-driven energy and flogged instantly to Incredibly Awful Adventures for a quarter of a cent a word, and that would have been that. (In fact a movie with this tunnel as its title was made about that time where the tunnel was apparently dug by shovels at a uniform depth of 30 feet below sea level. Fantasy, not science fiction.) But when the idea occurred it was then the 'sixties and readers, if not writers, were more sophisticated. All of the problem had to be looked at, not just the physical aspect. So the tunnel could be built -- but why should it be built. Well, you know (grasping feebly at mental straws) like it's a fast way to go, no storms, save money ... These arguments rattled away to nothing. There is no cheaper form of transport per unit mile than the bulk cargo ship. If people won't go by train from Los Angeles to New York why should they wish to cross the Atlantic in a manner other than by air? And what do you mean save money? If you did build this tunnel today you couldn't amortise the thing in under 10,000 years -- if ever. Look at the fate of the Chunnel, less than one three-hundredth as long. No, it can't be done.

Not today. Not our today. That is the operative word in all the previous arguments against this tunnel. There must be a world in which it would be advantageous to build the thing. At this moment the plot becomes a parallel-world one, and all sorts of interesting vistas open up. There would have to be a world government, or a government so large that for all apparent purposes it could be rich enough and strong enough to do whatever it wanted. And it would have to be the same government at both ends of the tunnel. The choice -- obviously -- is limited to one of two. Either an American world or a British one. With a 200-year history America has not been around long enough so that history can be rearranged to make her top dog. Which leaves Britain. 1066 and all that, surely enough time to cook the historical books to put her in charge.

As this thought crossed my mind it latched firmly on to another one I had been entertaining for years. The great differences between the Spanish and the British as empire builders. I am not going to defend the British Raj, but I would like to point out some basic differences. Religion firstly. While the dog-collared minions of the C. of E. marched hand-in-hand with the red-coated legionaries they did not have the tremendous power for evil that was exercised by the Spanish priests and monks. Yes, suttee was banned and missions opened, and the lesser religions looked down upon as being lesser. But that was all. Throughout the pink areas of the map a thousand different religions worshipped on, and as long as they didn't cook, kill or eat people in the name of the local gods they were pretty much left alone. Not so with the Spanish Catholics. Other religions were pagan and they were taken apart. Since religion and culture were inextricably mixed with the Aztecs, Mayas and others, their societies were taken apart as well. Their histories were wiped out, their records destroyed, their places of worship defaced, their priests killed, and on and on. A very nasty job of work and a very complete one.2 Today Mexico, Central and South America are mongrel Spanish cultures altered only in minor cultural ways by their pre-Columbian heritage.

What would they have been like if the British, not the Spaniards, had reached them first? Would they have been more like India with a British veneer upon a native culture?

The thought is an interesting one that fitted perfectly with the proposed British-dominated North America still in the empire. Why not South America as well? But how could this have been brought about?

The answer is in the name. Pre-Columbian. Keep Columbus away in order to give Cabot a chance. Better keep the Portuguese away as well, they were too good navigators. Where they led others would follow. The easiest way to polish them off as political entities was to slide back to a time when they didn't exist. 1492 is the operative year. This was when los reyes Catolicos whipped the Moors and drove them out of the Iberian peninsula, going on to unite the other Iberian states except Portugal, under the banners of Castile and Aragon, a union that would eventually form modern Spain. But this was really too late. The Moorish cause was well down the drain by 1492 and the end was pretty certain. The thing to do was to defeat the Catholic states just as they were beginning to emerge, so they could go back and brood blackly in their mountain retreats while the Moors continued to trot about on the plains below.

A happy dig through the always reliable eleventh Encyclopedia Britannica (no edition since this one is worth its weight in paper towels) produced the answer. The Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212. If the Spanish states had lost this one they could have been pushed back. And the various caliphates were still pretty much in alliance at that time.

Now the idea of the transatlantic tunnel became exciting -- and possible. With the English explorers opening up all of South, Central and North America, as well as India and all the rest, the power of the empire would have been incredible. The African colonies of the other European colonists could be picked off one by one if needs be. If the European countries united early enough they might have stopped the growing British strength, but in my book they never got around to it. Divide and rule is the name of the game, so the European states still exist and monarchy is the rule, with all the royal families united -- as they once were -- and the power of Britain behind each one if needs be.

In the light of all this strength the American Revolution was doomed before it began, with George Washington killed as a traitor. This instantly produced the hero of the book, George's descendant who wants to clear his ancestor's name. As the game is played out more and more pieces click into place. Until, finally, the big question must be faced. Why on earth should they build the tunnel?

A boondoggle of course. Postulate a stagnant world with ample raw materials and great production capability -- but without expanding markets. With unemployment on the rise and dole ever on the increase as well, why not find some major project that the government could back, that would make jobs and vitalise industry and get the economy plunging ahead again? Wars do this, but I am very much against war, and a lot of steel and concrete sunk on the ocean bottom is just as vanished as if it had been blown up.

Around this idea other ideas grew. This parallel world, today, would be very much like a Victorian society with certain material changes. This would have to be, in some ways, a Victorian novel. But I could not write one of these straight so it would have to be a parody or at least a humorous novel. But would it be funny in the parallel world? No! It would have to be a book written in that world for readers in that world. They would take it straight but readers in our world would be able to laugh at the differences. Big jokes and small became possible; the little humble Washington house beside the burned remains of Mount Vernon, the secondary characters like the detectives Richard Tracy and, a minor RBI executive, J. E. Hoover. The outline was there -- but could it be fleshed out?

Unlike the producers of the movie with the similar title, I could not tunnel under the ocean until I knew what the bottom was like. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography had many thick German tomes that told me far more about the Atlantic than I cared to know. And how did one build deep water tunnels? HMSO had a three-volume report on a world-tunnelling convention with all the details I needed.

All of this was done -- part-time of course! -- over a five-year period. When the parts had been assembled I saw that a book could indeed be written, so contracts were signed and A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! was the final result. Since, early on, I had decided it would be a light book, I did not dare even touch on the real condition of the Victorian working class, child prostitution and all the various ills of society at that period. I had to ignore them. So, true to the nature of the book but not true to my own beliefs, it did turn into a Tory's vision of glory for which I do apologise to my socialist friends.

The parallel-world theme is a rich vein that has been scarcely dug into. All things are possible. In the guise of entertainment, which SF must always be primarily, many moral, physical, social, philosophical -- the list is endless -- problems and questions can be examined if not solved. I can only urge writers to consider the possibilities inherent in this broad theme. The readers will be satisfied I am sure because this speculative- development-thought-story is the very essence of what science fiction is all about.


This article first appeared in:

Science Fiction at Large: A Collection of Essays, By Various Hands, About the Interface Between Science Fiction and Reality, edited by Peter Nicholls. London Victor Gollancz, 1976.



1 There is a strong whiff here of the ancient theological wrangle abut free-will and predestination. After the countless books and discussions on this topic I feel the entire controversy was laid to rest by Norman Spinrad in the October 1974 Analog in an article entitled "Psychesomics: The Emerging Science of Consciousness". Here, after explaining all of the current facts and theories regarding human consciousness, and showing that no possible pattern of human consciousness could ever be repeated for even a microsecond, Spinrad adds, in a most offhand manner, a throwaway sentence. 'So much for determinism.' So much indeed! Again, as always in the past, what appears to be a serious theological dispute turns out to be angels on a pinhead yet one more time.

2 The valley of Toluca in Mexico was a most sacred one. There was a temple for every day of the year. The Catholics tore down 364 of them and used the stone to build churches on the site. The 365th was so big they covered it with dirt to make a hill and built a church on the summit.