Introduction by Paul Tomlinson

Science fiction is often thought of as being concerned with the future, with the things as they might come to be; but there is a sub-genre which is not concerned with 'future history,' but with a history which might have been if some particular change had occurred in the past -- 'alternate history.' Perhaps the most famous examples of this type of story is Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), which explores how things might have been if the Allies had lost the Second World War, and Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (1953), in which the South was victorious in America's Civil War.

These stories trace their roots not to the writings of Verne and Wells, but to historical essayists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Sir George Trevelyan wrote "If Napoleon had Won the Battle of Waterloo," in 1907; and in 1932, a collection of essays entitled If: Or, History Rewritten, edited by Sir John Collings Squire (reprinted as If it had Happened Otherwise), included both the Trevelyan essay and a piece by Sir Winston Churchill called "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg," and another by Milton Waldon: "If Booth Had Missed Lincoln."

Alternate histories take a turning point in history such as a significant battle or the rise of a particular religion, and change events, such that the outcome of the battle is reversed or the religion fails to gain dominance. The stories then show us what our world would be like as a result. As Harry Harrison explains in his essay Worlds Beside Worlds (see below), the author may begin with the historical change and see where it leads him, or he may begin with a changed history in mind and work backwards to find a turning point at which he can manipulate events so that the history he imagines comes into being.

There is a subtle distinction here between 'alternate history' and 'parallel worlds'. If we imagine history as a river, an alternate history story is concerned with an event which causes the river to change course. There is only one river, and the story is about how history would be if this direction was changed.

Parallel world stories, on the other hand, are based on the premise that there are an infinite number of rivers running parallel to one another but in different 'dimensions' or 'realities'. Every time a choice is made, history splits into parallel courses, one where Option A is chosen, and one where Option B is favoured: history is an 'ever-branching tree.' Parallel worlds stories allow travel between these parallel history-rivers, by allowing characters to pass into another dimension or reality. Time travel stories, where the protagonist travels backwards and causes a change in events which alters the future -- the 'present' he has travelled from -- usually belong in this latter category.

A number of Harry Harrison's novels fall into one or other of these categories: A Rebel in Time and The Technicolor Time Machine deal with time travel and the alteration of the past to affect the present; while the West of Eden, Hammer and the Cross, and Stars and Stripes trilogies all deal with alternate histories.

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (also published as Tunnel Through the Deeps) is also an alternate history story. Here Harry Harrison began with a changed history in mind, and posited two changes in historical events which would have allowed this changed history to come into existence. In this story, set in an alternate 1973, George Washington lost the Battle of Lexington, and was executed as a traitor, and as a result America has remained a British colony which still dreams of independence. The other change is that the Spanish never rose to dominance and as a result Columbus didn't discover the Americas, and so the cultures of South America were not destroyed by the Conquistadors.

Thus Harrison brings into being a British Empire which has survived well into the twentieth century, and which is still heavily influenced by its Victorian creators. But this ideal is threatened by increasing unemployment and the threat of economic decline: what the empire needs is something to boost its fortunes. And so is born a vast engineering project to link Britain with its North American colony, a tunnel beneath the sea: employment will be created, and the manufacturing industries of the empire are guaranteed prosperity.

The hero of the story is Captain Augustine Washington, a brilliant engineer, and descendent of the traitor George Washington: as well as wishing to see the success of the tunnel, Washington wants to see his homeland achieve independence, or at the very least the status of Canada and Australia, that of independent dominion. He is also madly in love with Iris, daughter of the genius behind the tunnel project, Sir Isambard Brassey-Brunel, who despises the young upstart colonial engineer.

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! is a curiously transatlantic book: the hero is an American, seeking independence for his country, but the British here -- in contrast to Harrison's more recent Stars and Stripes novels -- are surprisingly benign imperialists, as HH pointed out in a recent interview:

"The Brits had an easy job, they expanded at a time when expansion was easy to do, and they made a better job of it than the French and the Germans. They got to the right spots, they got to India. This is one of the reasons I had the Brits ruling the world in A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! Because I'd lived in Mexico I knew that the rotten Spaniards had not only destroyed the religion there, they'd destroyed an entire culture. Whereas the Brits went in and took a bit of civilisation with them: they tried to get rid of things like the Thugees and wife burning, they changed the rules of society, but they left the religion and culture alone. I thought that was a good idea, so I made them the heroes in that book."

And so the scene is set to allow Harrison to have fun with Victorian technology run riot, with walk-on roles for 'Lord' Amis and 'Reverend' Aldiss, and with an incredible irony which the reader is free to pick up on or ignore completely. But all the time he plays it as a straight Victorian adventure-romance: the characters don't say or do funny things, the humour arises from the absurdity of the world in which they exist and the unfolding of events. The whole book is written in the style of a story which originates in the alternate world it describes: this, as much as anything, makes it one of Harrison's most enjoyable novels.

Paul Tomlinson, January 2001