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
A 'parallel world' story in which George Washington was quietly assassinated after the Battle of Lexington, and America is still part of the British Empire. Transatlantic travel has, until now, been dominated by the massive, clumsy coal-powered flying machines. The plan now is to build a tunnel between the two countries.
In this novel it is 1973, but the tone and mood of the piece is that of Victorian England.
Dedication: For Transatlantic Toby Roxburgh, thespian, Savoyard, friend
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:
B. The parallel world 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.
"All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictitious. In this world. As for parallel worlds, we make no promises."
Book the First: The Link Between the Lands Begun
Chapter One - A Hurried Message and a Dangerous Moment
Leaving Paddington Station, the Flying Cornishman seemed little different from any other train. Admittedly the appointments were cleaner and newer, and there was a certain opulence to the gold tassels that fringed the seat cushions in the first-class carriage, but these were just a matter of superficial decoration. The differences that made this train unique in England, which was the same as saying unique in the entire world, were not yet apparent as the great golden engine nosed its way over the maze of tracks and switches of the station yards, then out through the tunnels and cuttings. Here the roadbed was ordinary and used by all trains alike. Only when the hulking locomotive and its trailing cylinder of closely joined coaches had dived deep under the Thames and emerged in Surrey did the real difference show. For now even the roadbed became unusual, a single track of continuously welded rails on specially cushioned sleepers that was straighter and smoother than any track had ever been before, sparkling in deep cuttings that slashed a direct channel through the chalk of the downs, shooting arrow-straight across the streams on stumpy iron bridges, a no-nonsense rail line that changed direction only in the longest and shallowest of curves. The reason for this became quickly apparent as the acceleration of the train steadily increased until the nearby fields and trees flashed by, visible as just the most instantaneous of green blurs; only in the distance could details be picked out, but they too slipped backwards and vanished almost as soon as they had appeared.
Albert Drigg had the entire compartment to himself, and he was very glad of that. Although he knew that this train had made the return trip from Penzance every day for almost a year now and had suffered no mishap, he was aware of this only in theory, so that now experiencing it in practice was a totally different matter. From London to Penzance was a total of 282 miles and that entire incredible distance would be covered in exactly two hours and five minutes -- an average speed including stops of well in excess of 150 miles per hour. Was man meant to go that fast? Albert Drigg had a strong visceral sensation that he was not. Not even in this year of Our Lord 1973, modern and up to date though the empire was. Sitting so bolt upright in his black suit and black waistcoat that they showed no wrinkles, his stiff white collar shining, his gleaming leather portfolio on his knees, he generated no sign of his internal emotions. On the rack above, his tightly rolled umbrella and black bowler indicated he was a city man and men of the city of London are just not given to expressing their innermost feelings in public. Nevertheless he could not suppress a slight start when the compartment door whisked open on silent runners and a cheerful cockney voice addressed him.
"Tea, sir, tea?"
One hundred and fifty miles an hour -- or more! -- and the cup remained in place on the ledge beneath the window while the tea poured into it in a steady stream.
"That will be thrupence, sir."
Drigg took a sixpence from his pocket and passed it over to murmured thanks, then instantly regretted his largesse as the door closed again. He must be unnerved if he tipped in so magnanimous a manner, but he was solaced by the fact that he could put it on the expense account since he was travelling on company business. And the tea was good, freshly brewed and hot, and did very much to soothe his nerves. A whisky would do a lot more he realized, and he almost touched the electric button for the waiter when he remembered the Saloon Car, often seen in the pages of The Tatler and Pall Mall Gazette, but visited only by the very few. He finished the tea and rose, tucking the extra length of chain back into his sleeve. It bothered him that the portfolio was irremovably shackled to the cuff around his wrist and indicated that he was something less than a complete gentleman, but by careful manoeuvring he could keep the chain from the public view. The Saloon Car, that was the very thing!
The carpeting in the corridor was a deep gold in colour, making a subtle contrast with the ruddy, oiled gloss of the mahogany panelling. Drigg had to pass through another coach to reach the Saloon Car, but there was no need to struggle with recalcitrant doors as on an ordinary train, for as he approached, some concealed device detected his proximity and the doors opened swiftly before him to the accompaniment of the hum of hidden electric motors. Naturally he did not look through the compartment windows he passed, but out of the corners of his eyes he had quick glimpses of finely dressed men and elegantly attired women, some children sitting sedately, reading -- then a sudden loud barking that inadvertently drew his eye. Two country gentlemen sat with their feet up, emptying a bottle of port between them while a half dozen hounds of various breeds and sizes milled around and sought after their attention. And then Drigg was at the Saloon Car.
No automatic devices here but the best of personal services. A grand carved door with massive brass handles and a pillbox-capped boy, his double row of uniform buttons glinting and catching the eye, who saluted and tugged at the handles.
"Welcome, sir," he piped, "to the Grand Saloon Car of the London and Land's End Railway."
Now that he saw it in its full splendour Drigg realized that the newspaper photographs did not do the establishment justice. There was no feeling at all of being in a railway carriage, for the atmosphere was rather that of an exceedingly exclusive club. One side contained immense crystal windows, from floor to ceiling, framed by ruddy velvet curtains, while arrayed before them were the tables where the clientele could sit at their leisure and watch the rural countryside speeding by. The long bar was opposite, massed with ranked bottles that reflected in the fine cut-glass mirror behind it. There were windows to the right and left of the bar, delicately constructed stained-glass windows through which the sun poured to throw shifting coloured patterns upon the carpet. No saints here, unless they be the saints of railroading, like Stephenson or Brunel, sturdy, far-seeing men with compasses and charts in hand. They were flanked by the engines of history with Captain Dick's Puffer and the tiny Rocket on the left, then progressing through history and time to the far right where the mighty atomic-powered Dreadnought appeared, the juggernaut of the rails that pulled this very train. Drigg sat near the window, his portfolio concealed beneath the table, and ordered his whisky, sipping at it slowly while he enjoyed the gay music-hall tune that a smiling musician was playing on the organ at the far end of the car.
This was indeed luxury, and he relished every moment of it, already seeing the dropping jaws and mute stares of respect when he told the lads about it back at The King's Head in Hampstead. Before he had as much as finished his first drink the train was easing to a stop in Salisbury, where he looked on approvingly as a policeman appeared to chase from the platform a goggling lot of boys in school jackets who stood peering into the car. His duty done, the officer raised his hand in salute to the occupants, then rolled majestically and flatfootedly on about his official affairs. Once more the Flying Cornishman hurled itself down the track, and with his second whisky Drigg ordered a plate of sandwiches, still eating them at the only other stop, in Exeter, while they were scarcely done before the train slowed for Penzance and he had to hurry back for his hat and umbrella.
The guards were lined up beside the locomotive when he passed, burly, no-nonsense-looking soldiers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, elegant in their dark kilts and white gaiters, impressive in the steadiness of their Lee-Enfield rifles with fixed bayonets. Behind them was the massive golden bulk of the Dreadnought, the most singular and by far the most powerful engine in the world. Despite the urgency of his mission Drigg slowed, as did all the other passengers, unable calmly to pass the gleaming length of her. Black driving wheels as tall as his head, drive rods thicker than his legs that emerged from swollen cylinders leaking white plumes of steam from their exhausts. She was a little travel-stained about her lower works, but all her outer skin shone with the seamless, imprisoned-sunlight glow of gold, fourteen-karat gold plating, a king's ransom on a machine this size. But it wasn't the gold the soldiers were here to guard, though that was almost reason enough, but the propulsive mechanism hidden within that smooth, unbroken, smokestackless shell. An atomic reactor, the government said, and little else, and kept its counsel. And guarded its engine. Any of the states of Germany would give a year's income for this secret while spies had already been captured who, it was rumoured, were in the employ of the King of France. The soldiers sternly eyed the passers-by, and Drigg hurried on.
The works offices were upstairs in the station building, and a lift carried him swiftly to the fourth floor. He was reaching for the door to the executive suite when it opened and a man emerged, a navvy from the look of him, for who else but a railway navvy would wear such knee-high hobnailed boots along with green corduroy trousers? His shirt was heavy canvas and over it he wore a grimy but still rainbow waistcoat while around his pillarlike neck was wrapped an even gaudier handkerchief. He held the door but barred Drigg's way, looking at him closely with his pale-blue eyes which were startlingly clear in the tanned nutbrown of his face.
"If you please."
The thick-thewed arm still prevented his entrance, and there seemed little he could do to move it.
"You wouldn't know me, but I'm Fighting Jack, Captain Washington's head ganger, and if it's the captain you want t'see, he's not here."
"I do want to see him and it is a matter of some urgency."
"That'll be tonight then, after shift. Captain's up t'the face. No visitors. If you've messages in that bag, I'll bring 'em up for you."
"Impossible -- I must deliver this in person." Drigg took a key from his waistcoat pocket and turned it in the lock of the portfolio, then reached inside. There was a single linen envelope there and he withdrew it just enough for the other to see the golden crest on the flap. Fighting Jack dropped his arm.
"None other." Drigg could not keep a certain smug satisfaction from his voice.
"Well, come along then. You'll have to wear overalls; it's mucky up t'face."
"The message must be delivered."
There was a work train waiting for the head ganger, stubby electric engine drawing a single open car with boxes of supplies. It pulled out as soon as they were aboard, and they rode the footplate behind the engineer. The track passed the town, cut through the fields, then dived into a black tunnel where the only light was a weak glow from the illuminated dials so that Drigg had to clutch for support, fearful that he would be tossed out into the jolting darkness. Then they were in the sunshine again and slowing down as they moved toward a second tunnel mouth. It was far grander than the other with a facing of hewn granite blocks and marble pillars that supported a great lintel that had been done in the Doric style. This was deeply carved with the words that still brought a certain catch to Drigg's throat, even after all his years with the company.
TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL they read.
Transatlantic tunnel -- what an ambition! Less emotional men than he had been caught by the magic of those word and even though there was scarcely more than a mile of tunnel behind this imposing facade, the thrill was still there. Imagination led one on, plunging into the earth, diving beneath the sea, rushing under those deep oceans of dark water for thousands of miles to emerge into the sunlight again in the New World.
Lights moved by, slower and slower, until the work train stopped before a concrete wall that sealed the tunnel like a immense plug.
"Last stop, follow me," Fighting Jack called out and swung down to the floor in a movement remarkably easy for a man his size. "Have you ever been down t'tunnel before?"
"Never." Drigg was ready enough to admit ignorance of this alien environment. Men moved about and called to or another with strange instructions; fallen metal clanged and echoed from the arched tunnel above them where unshielded lights hung to illuminate a Dante-ish scene of strange machines, tracks and cars, nameless equipment. "Never!"
"Nothing to worry you, Mr. Drigg, safe as houses if you do the right things at the right time. I been working on the railways and the tunnels all m'life, and outside of a few split ribs, cracked skull, a broken leg, and a scar or two, I'm fit as a fiddle. Now follow me."
Supposedly reassured by these dubious references, Drigg followed the ganger through a steel door set into the concrete bulkhead that was instantly and noisily slammed shut behind them. They were in a small room with benches down the middle and lockers on one wall. There was a sudden hissing and the distant hammering of pumps, and Drigg felt a strange pressure on his ears. His look of sudden dismay was noticed by Fighting Jack.
"Air, just compressed air, nothing more. And a miserable little twenty pounds it is, too, I can tell you, as one who has worked under sixty and more. You'll never notice it once you're inside. Here you go." He pulled a boiler suit from a locker and shook it out. "This is big enough to go over your clothes. I'll hold that wallet for you."
"It is not removable." Drigg shook out the length of chain for inspection.
"I do not possess it."
The ganger produced an immense clasp knife, with a swiftness and economy of motion that showed he had had sudden use for it before, and touched it so that a long gleaming blade shot out. He stepped forward and Drigg backed away.
"Now there, sir, did you think I was going to amputate? Just going to make a few sartorial alterations on this here garment."
A single slash opened the sleeve from wrist to armpit, and another twitch of the blade vented the garment's side. Then the knife folded and vanished into its usual resting place while Drigg drew on the mutilated apparel, the portfolio easily passing through the rent cloth. When Drigg had it on, Fighting Jack cut up another boiler suit -- he had a cavalier regard for company property apparently -- and bound it around the cut sleeve to hold it shut. By the time this operation was completed the pumps had stopped and another door at the far end of the airlock room opened and the operator looked inside, touching his forehead when he saw Drigg's bowler.
A train of small hopper wagons was just emerging from a larger steel door in the bulkhead, and Fighting Jack pursed his lips to emit an ear-hurting whistle. The driver of the squat electric locomotive turned at the sound and cut his power.
"That's One-Eyed Conro," Fighting Jack confided to Drigg. "Terrible man in a dustup, thumbs ready all t'time. Trying to even the score, you see, for the one he had gouged out."
Conro glared out of his single reddened eye until they had climbed up beside him, then ground the train of wagons forward.
"And how's the face?" Fighting Jack asked.
"Sand." One-Eyed Conro spat a globe of tobacco juice into the darkness. "Still sand, wet sand. Loose at the top so Mr. Washington has dropped the pressure so she won't blow, so now there's plenty of water at the bottom and all the pumps is working."
"'Tis the air pressure, you see," Fighting Jack explained to Drigg as though the messenger were interested, which he was not. "We're out under t'ocean here with ten, twenty fathoms of water over our heads and that water trying to push down through the sand and get t'us all the time, you see. So we raise the air pressure to keep it out. But seeing as how this tunnel is thirty feet high, there is a difference in the pressure from top to bottom and that's a problem. When we raise the pressure to keep things all nice at t'top, why then the water seeps in at t'bottom where the pressure is lower and we're like t'swim. But, mind you, if we was to raise the pressure so the water is kept out at t'bottom why then there is too much pressure at t'top and there is a possibility of blowing a hole right through to the ocean bottom and letting all the water of the world down upon our heads. But don't you worry about it."
Drigg could do nothing else. He found that for some inexplicable reason his hands were shaking so that he had to grip the chain around his wrist tightly so it did not rattle. All too soon the train began to slow and the end of the tunnel appeared clearly ahead. A hulking metal shield that sealed off the workers from the virgin earth outside and enabled them to attack it through doorlike openings that pierced the steel. Drills were at work above, whining and grumbling, while mechanical shovels below dug at the displaced muck and loaded it into the waiting wagons. The scene appeared disorganized and frenzied, but even to Drigg's untutored eye it was quickly apparent that work was going forward in an orderly and efficient manner. Fighting Jack climbed down and Drigg followed him, over to the shield and up a flight of metal stairs to one of the openings.
"Stay here," the ganger ordered. "I'll bring him out." Drigg had not the slightest desire to go a step farther and wondered at his loyalty to the company that had brought him this far. Close feet away from him was the bare face of the soil through which the tunnel was being driven.
Grey sand and hard clay. The shovels ripped into it and dropped it down to the waiting machines below. There was something sinister and frightening about the entire operation, and Drigg tore his gaze away to follow Fighting Jack who was talking to a tall man in khaki wearing high-laced engineer's boots. Only when he turned and Drigg saw that classical nose in profile did he recognize Captain Augustine Washington. He had seen him before only in the offices and at board meetings and had not associated that well-dressed gentleman with this burly engineer. But of course, no toppers here...
It was something between a shout and a scream, and everyone looked in the same direction at the same instant. One of the navvies was pointing at the face of dark sand before him that was puckering away from the shield.
Blowout! someone shouted and Drigg had no idea what it meant except he knew something terrible was happening. The scene was rapid, confused, with men doing things and all the time the sand was moving away until suddenly a hole a good two feet wide appeared with a great sound like an immense whistle. A wind pulled at Drigg and his ears hurt, and to his horror he felt himself being drawn toward that gaping mouth. He clung to the metal in petrified terror as he watched strong boards being lifted from the shield by that wind and being sucked forward, to splinter and break and vanish into oblivion.
A navvy stumbled forward, leaning back against the suction, holding a bale of straw up high in his strong arms. It was Fighting Jack, struggling against the thing that had suddenly appeared to destroy them all, and he raised the bale which was sucked from his grasp even as he lifted it. It hit the opening, was pressed flat, and hung there for an instant -- then disappeared.
Fighting Jack was staggering, reaching for support to pull himself back to safety, his hand out to a steel bulkhead. His fingers were almost touching it, tantalizingly close, but could not reach it. With a bellow, more of annoyance hant fear, he rocked backwards, was lifted to his feet and dragged headfirst into the opening.
For one, long, terrifying moment he stuck there, like a cork in a bottle, just his kicking legs projecting into the tunnel.
Then he was gone and the air whistled and howled free again.
Chapter Two - A Momentous Decision
All of the navvies, not to mention Albert Drigg, stood paralysed by horror at the swiftness of the tragedy. Even these strong men, used as they were to a life of physical effort and hardship, accidents and sudden maiming, were appalled by the swiftness of the event. Only one man there had the presence of mind to move, to act, to break the spell that bound all of the others.
"To me," Captain Washington shouted, jumping to a bulwark of timbers that had been prepared for just this sort of emergency. Lengths of thick boards that were bolted to stout timbers to make a doorlike shield that stood as high as a man. It looked too heavy for one person to budge, yet Washington seized the edge and with a concerted contraction of all his muscles dragged it forward a good two feet.
His action jolted the others into motion, rallying to him to seize the construction and lift it and push it forward. The pressure of the air tore it from their hands and slammed it against the face of the cutting, covering the blowout opening at last. There was still the strong hiss of air pushing through the cracks in the boards, but the rushing torrent had now abated. Under Washington's instructions they hurried to contain and seal off the disaster. While above them, through the largest opening in the tunnelling shield, a strange machine appeared, pushed forward by smoothly powerful hydraulic cylinders. It was not unlike a battleship gun turret, only in place of the cannon there were four long tubes that ended in cutting heads. These were placed against the sand above the blowout and instantly began revolving under the operator's control. Drilling swiftly, they sank into the soft sand until the turret itself was flush against the face of the cutting. As soon as this was done the drilling stopped and valves were opened -- and an instant frosting of ice appeared upon the turret.
While this was happening, a brawny navvy with an axe had chopped a hole in the centre of the wooden shield just over the opening of the blowout. The pressure was so strong that, when he holed through, the axe was torn from his hands and vanished. He stumbled back, laughing at the incident and holding up his hands so his butties could see the raw stripes on his palms where the handle of the axe had been drawn from his tight grip. No sooner had he stepped aside than the mouth of a thick hose was placed over this new opening, and a pump started to throb.
Within seconds the high-pitched whistle of the escaping air began to die away. Ice now coated the formerly wet sand through which the blowout had occurred, and a chilling wave of cold air passed over them all. When the rushing wind had vanished completely, Washington ordered the pumping stopped, and their ears sang in the sudden silence. The sound of a bell drew their attention as Captain Washington spun the handle on the field telephone.
"Put me through on the radio link to the boat at once."
They all listened with a fierce intentness as contact was established and Washington snapped the single word, "Report." He listened and nodded, then called out to his intent audience.
"He is safe. Alive and well."
They cheered and threw their caps into the air and only desisted when he raised his hands for silence.
"They saw the blowout on the surface, blowing muck and spray forty feet into the air when it first holed through. They went as close as they dared to the rising bubbles then and were right on the spot when Fighting Jack came by. Rose right up into the air, they said, and they had him almost as soon as he fell back. Unconscious and undamaged and when he came to he was cursing even before he opened his eyes. Now back to the job, men; we have twelve feet more to go today."
As soon as the rhythm of the work had resumed, Captain Washington turned to Drigg and put out his hand in a firm and muscular handshake.
"It is Mr. Drigg, isn't it? The marquis' private secretary?"
"Yes, sir, and secretary of the board as well."
"You have caught us at a busy moment, Mr. Drigg, and I hope you were not alarmed. There are certain inherent difficulties in tunnelling, but as you have seen, they are not insurmountable if the correct precautions are taken. There is a trough in the ocean bottom above us at this spot; I doubt if more than five feet of sand separate us from the water. A blowout is always a possibility. But prompt plugging and the use of the Gowan stabilizer quickly sealed the opening."
"I'm afraid it is all beyond me," said Drigg.
"Not at all. Simple mechanics." There was a glint of true enthusiasm in Captain Washington's eye as he explained. "Since the sand is watersoaked above us, the compressed air we use to hold back the weight of the water blew an opening right through to the sea bottom. The wooden barricade sealed the opening temporarily while the Gowan stabilizer could be brought up. Those drills are hollow, and as soon as they were driven home, liquid nitrogen was pumped through them. This fluid has a temperature of 345.5 degrees below zero, and it instantly freezes everything around it. The pipe you see there pumped in a slurry of mud and water which froze solid and plugged the opening. We shall keep it frozen while we tunnel past this dangerous area and seal it off with the cast-iron sections of tunnel wall. All's well that ends well -- and so it has."
"It has indeed, and for your head ganger as well. How fortunate the boat was nearby."
Washington looked at the other keenly before answering. "Not chance at all, as I am sure you know. I do believe the last letter from the directors drawing my attention to the wasteful expense of maintaining the boat at this station was over your signature?"
"It was, sir, but it appeared there only as the drafter of the letter. I have no responsibility in these matters, being just the vehicle of the directors' wishes. But with your permission I shall give a complete report of what I have seen today and will stress how a man's life was saved because of your foresight."
"Just good engineering, Mr. Drigg."
"Foresight, sir, I insist. Where you put a man's life ahead of money. I shall say just that, and the matter will be laid to rest once and for all."
Washington seemed slightly embarrassed at the warmth in Drigg's voice, and he quickly sought to change the subject.
"I have kept you waiting too long. It must have been a matter of some importance that has brought you personally all this distance."
"A communication, if you please."
Drigg unlocked the portfolio and took out the single envelope it contained. Washington raised his eyebrows slightly at the sight of the golden crest, then swiftly broke the seal and read the letter.
"Are you aware of the contents of this letter?" said Washington, drawing the folded sheet of paper back and forth between his fingers.
"Only that the marquis wrote it himself and instructed me to facilitate in every way your return to London on a matter of some importance. We will be leaving at once."
"Must we? The first through connection on an up train is at nine, and it won't arrive until the small hours."
"On the contrary," Drigg said, smiling. "A special run of the Flying Cornishman has been arranged for your convenience and should be now waiting."
"It is that urgent then?"
"The utmost -- His Lordship impressed that upon me most strongly."
"All right then, I will have to change .. "
"Permit me to interrupt. I believe instructions were also sent to the head porter of your hotel and a packed bag will be awaiting aboard the train."
Washington nodded acceptance; the decision had been made. He turned around and raised his voice over the growing din. "Bullhead. You will be head ganger here until Fighting Jack returns. Keep the work moving."
There was no more to be done. Washington led the way back through the shield to the electric locomotive which he commandeered for the return trip. They took it as far as the bulkhead and arrived just in time to meet Fighting Jack emerging from the airlock door.
"Damn me if I want to do that again," he bellowed, his clothes still dripping wet, bruises on his head and shoulders where he had been dragged through the ocean bottom. "Like a cork in a bung I was, stuck and thought it me last moments. Then up like a shot and everything getting black and the next I know I'm looking up t'sky and at the faces of some ugly sinners and wondering if I were t'heaven or the other place."
"You were born to be hanged," said Washington calmly. "Back to the face now and see they work the shift out without slackening."
"I'll do that and feed any man who shirks into a blowout and up the way I went."
He turned and stamped off while they entered the airlock and found seats.
"Should he be working ... ?" Drigg ventured after long minutes of silence.
"He shouldn't -- but I cannot stop him. These navvies have a way of life different from ours, and we must respect it. If he's hurt or has the bends, he would never admit it, and the only way to get him to hospital would be to bash him over the head, and he would never forgive me. I have seen these men, on a dare, jump over the open mouth of a ventilation tunnel ten feet wide and a hundred feet deep. I have seen three men in a row fail and fall to their deaths and the fourth man, laughing, succeed. Then he and all the others there go out and drink beer until they can no longer walk in memory of their dead butties. And no one regretting or worrying about a thing. A hard and brutal life you might say, but by God it makes men."
As though ashamed of this emotional outburst, Washington kept his counsel for the rest of the trip out of the tunnel, until they reached the platform in Penzance. It was dark now with the last bars of red fading from the clouds in the west. Lights were winking on all over the expanse of tracks as the yardboys went about refilling the switch beacons with paraffin and lighting their wicks. The crowds were gone, the station silent, while the solitary form of the Dreadnought bulked even larger than life with its newly polished golden cladding catching and holding the red and green of the switch lights. There were only two carriages attached, the Saloon Car and Monarch of the Glens, the private coach used only by the marquis or other members of the board of directors. The porter for this car, an elderly white-haired man named Walker, formerly the butler of one of the board members, now retired to this sinecure in his advancing years, was waiting at the steps to the car.
"Your bath is drawn, sir, and your clothing laid out."
"Capital -- but I must have a drink first. Join me if you will, Mr. Drigg; it has been a long and hot day with more than enough excitement for a month."
The gaudily uniformed boy was at the door to the Saloon Car, smiling as he drew it open for him. Washington stopped short when he saw him. "Should not this infant be in bed? Goodness knows we can open the door ourselves on this special trip."
The child's face fell and his lower lip showed a tendency to wobble before Drigg spoke. "They are volunteers all, Captain Washington, Billy here along with the rest. They want to go, you must understand that."
"Then go we shall." Washington laughed and entered the car, "Send a lemonade out to Billy, and we will all have that drink."
The organist looked over his shoulder, smiling out a fine display of gold teeth, and enthusiastically played "Pack Up Your Troubles" as soon as they entered. Washington sent him over a pint of beer, then raised his own and drained it in almost a single swallow. The train slipped forward so smoothly that they were scarcely aware that they were under way.
What with a few drinks and bathing and dressing, the trip was over almost before Washington knew it. The platform at Paddington Station was empty except for the shining eighteen-foot-long, six-doored, black form of a Rolls-Royce waiting for them. The footman held the door, and as soon as they were inside and he had joined the chauffeur they were in motion again. Around Hyde Park and up Constitution Hill past Buckingham Palace -- windows all aglitter with a ball or some important function-and within short minutes they were pulling up in front of Transatlantic House, the company offices in Pall Mall. The front doors were held open, and not a word was spoken as Drigg led the way to the lift and up to the library. They stood there in the silence of morocco and dark wood until the porter had closed the outer door, and only then did Drigg touch a hidden catch on one of the shelves of books. An entire section of shelving opened like a door and he pointed through it.
"His Lordship is waiting in his private office. He thought to have a word with you alone before you go in to the board. If you will." Washington stepped forward while the secret doorway closed behind him and another door opened before.
The marquis was writing at his desk and did not at first look up. This was an elegant room, rich with silver and brass and heavy with ancestral portraits. Behind the marquis the curtains were open so the large bay window framed the view across St. James's Park with the tower of Big Ben visible beyond. As it solemnly struck the hour, the marquis laid down his pen and waved Washington to the nearby chair.
"It is a matter of some urgency," said he, "or I would not have rushed you away from your work in this cavalier manner."
"I realized that from the tone of your note. But you did not say what the matter was."
"We'll come to that in a moment. But I have asked you here, to see me alone, on what, for lack of a better term, might be called a personal matter."
His Lordship seemed ill at ease. He tented his fingers together before him, then dropped them flat, rubbed at the wide jaw so typical of his line, then turned around to look out the window, then swung around again.
"This is difficult to say, Captain Washington, and has to do with our respective families. We have ancestors, there might be ill-will, don't mean to infer, but you understand."
Washington did understand and felt some of the same embarrassment as the marquis. He had lived with this burden all his life so was better able to face it. Perhaps it would be best to have it out in the open than kept as a guilty secret.
"What is past is past," said he. "It is a matter of history and common knowledge that the first Marquis Comwallis executed my ancestor George Washington as a traitor. I feel no shame at the fact, nor any personal animosity toward you or your family; you may take my word on that. The Battle of Lexington was fairly fought and fairly won and the Continental Army defeated. The first marquis was a soldier and could do no more than obey his orders, no matter how distasteful he found them personally. As you know, it was the king himself who ordered the execution. George Washington was a traitor -- but only because he lost. If he had won, he would have been a patriot, and he deserved to win because his cause was a just one."
"I'm afraid I'm not so well read up on that period of history," Comwallis said, looking down at his desk.
"You will excuse my outspokenness, Your Lordship, but this is something very close to me. Because of the revolt and the ill feelings that followed after it in the American colonies, we remain a colony to this day. While others, Canada and Australia, for example, have attained to full independent dominion status within the empire. You had better know that I am active in the independence movement and will do everything I can to hurry the day when Her Majesty will approve that status."
"I could not agree more warmly, sir! As you undoubtedly know, I am a man of firm Tory persuasion and strongly back my party's position that dominion status be granted in the manner you say."
He rose and pounded the desk soundly as he said this, then extended his hand to the other, a social grace he had chosen to ignore when Washington had entered, undoubtedly because of the delicate nature of their familial relationship. Washington could do no less, so he stood and shook the hand firmly. They stood that way for a long moment, then the marquis dropped his eyes and released Washington's hand, coughing into his fist to cover his embarrassment at this unexpected display of emotion. But it had cleared the air for what was to come.
"We are upon difficult times with the tunnel, Washington, difficult times," said Cornwallis, and his expression became as difficult as the times he alluded to, with his-forehead furrowed as a ploughed field, the corners of his mouth drooping so far that his ample jowls fell an inch. "This immense project has worn two faces since the very beginning, and the private face is the one I allude to now. I am sure that you have some idea of the intricate financing of an enterprise this size, but I do not think you are aware of how political in nature the major considerations are. In simple-this is a government project, a sort of immense works program. You are shocked to hear this?"
"I must admit, sir, that I am, at the minimum, surprised."
"As well you might be. This country and its mighty empire are built upon the sound notion that strong men lead while others follow, weak men and inept corporations go to the wall, while the government and the crown keeps its nose out of private affairs. Which is all well and good when the economic weather is fair and the sun of the healthy pound beams down upon us all. But there are clouds across the face of that sun now, as I am sure you are well aware. While the frontiers were expanding, England grew fat with the wealth of the East India Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, the Inca-Andean Company, and all the others flowing our way. But I am afraid the last frontier has been pushed back to the final ocean and a certain placidity has settled upon the world and its economy. When businesses can no longer expand, they tend to contract and this industrial contractionism is rather self-perpetuating. Something had to be done to stop it. More men on the dole every day, workhouses full, charities stretched to the limit. Something, I say, had to be done. Something was done. Certain private businessmen, certain great corporations, met in camera and -- with considerable reluctance I can assure you -- decided that the overall solution of the problem was beyond them. Learned specialists in the field of economics were drawn into the discussions and at their insistence the still highly secret meetings were enlarged to include a committee from the Parliament. It was then that the tunnel project was first voiced, a project large enough to affect and stimulate the entire economy of both Britain and the American colonies. Yet its very size was its only draw- back; not enough private capital could be raised to finance it. It was then that the final, incredible step was taken. Crown financing would be needed." He lowered his voice unconsciously. "The queen was consulted."
This was a revelation of a staggering nature, a secret of state so well kept that Washington, privy as he was to the innermost operations of The Transatlantic Tunnel Company, had no slightest intimation of the truth until this moment. He was stunned at first, then narrowed his eyes in thought as he considered the ramifications. He was scarcely aware that the marquis rose and poured them each a sherry from the cut crystal decanter on the sideboard, though his fingers took it automatically and raised it to his lips.
He finally spoke. "Can you tell me what is the degree of involvement of the government?"
"In for a penny, in for a pound. Private investors have so far subscribed about twelve percent of the needed sum. Her Majesty's government has agreed to take eighty percent-but no more."
"Then we are eight percent short of our goal?"
"Precisely." The marquis paced the length of the room and back, his hands clasped behind him and kneading each other. "I've had my doubts from the beginning, God knows we have all had our doubts. But it was Lord Keynes who had his way, the queen's adviser, author of I don't know how many books on economics, ninety years if he is a day and still spry enough to take on all comers. He had us all convinced; it sounded so good when he told us how well it would work. Money in circulation, capital on the move, healthy profits for investors, businesses expanding to meet the needs for building the tunnel, employment all around, pay packets going out to the small merchants, a healthy economy."
"All of those things could be true."
"Damme, all those things will be true -- if the whole thing doesn't go bust first. And it will go bust and things will be back to where they were if not worse unless we can come up with the missing eight percent. And, you will pardon my frankness, my boy, but it is your bloody fellow colonials who are tugging back on the reins. You can help us there, possibly only you can help us there. Without overexaggerating I can say the fate of the tunnel depends upon you."
"I will do whatever is needed, sir," Washington said quietly and simply. "You may count upon me."
"I knew I could or I would not have had you here. Forgive my bad manners, been a deucedly long day and more to come. We have an agreement with your colonial Congress and the governor general -- yes, they were consulted, too; your economy shares the same debilitations as ours -- to match equally all monies raised by private investors in the Americas. There has been but a trickle where we needed a flood. Radical changes are needed. You, of course, know Rockefeller, chairman of the American board, and Macintosh, Brassey-Brunel's agent in charge of the construction at the American end. Both have agreed, in the course of the greater good, that they will step down. The two positions will be combined into one, and you will be nominated tonight to fill it."
"Good God!" Washington gasped.
"May He approve and be on our side. Our first consideration was that the candidate be a good engineer, and you are that. We know you will do the work. The second is that you are a colonial, one of their own people, so the operation has a definite American ring to it. I realize that there are some among the Tories who hold your family name anathema -- we must be frank -- but I feel they are in a minority. Our hope is that this appointment and your efforts will spur the lagging sales of bonds that will permit the operation to continue. Will you do it?"
"I gave my word; I will not withdraw it now. But there will be difficulties."
"A single difficulty, and you can put the name to it."
"Sir Isambard. The design of the tunnel is all his, the very conception indeed. I am just an employee carrying out his orders as is his agent Macintosh, who is not even an engineer. If I am to assume this greater responsibility, I will be something close to his equal in all matters. He is not going to like it."
"The understatement of the century, my boy. He has been sounded out cautiously already with the predictable results." A light flashed on the desk and was accompanied by a soft beeping sound. "The board has returned after their dinners, and I must join them since no one is to know I have seen you. If you will be so kind as to wait in the library, you will be sent for. If matters go as we have planned, and they will since we have the votes, you will be sent a note outlining these proposals and then called before the board. There is no other way."
The door opened at a touch of a button on the desk, and Washington found himself back in the library.
There was a soft leather armchair there that he sank into gratefully and when, a few minutes later, Drigg came to inquire if he needed anything, he was deep in thought and roused up only long enough to shake his head in the negative. For this was without a doubt the pinnacle of his career -- if only he could scale it. Yes, he could, he had no doubts about that, had been without doubts since he had left Mount Vernon for the last time, waving good-bye to his mother and sister at the gate of the simple cottage that was their ancestral home. A cottage that had been built in the shadow of the ivy-grown ruins of that greater house burned by the Tory mobs. He was already an engineer then, graduated first in his class from MIT despite the dishonour attached to his name -- or perhaps because of it. Just as he had fought many a dark and silent battle with his fists behind the dorms, so had he fought that much harder contest in school to stay ahead, to be better, fighting with both his fists and his mind to restore honour to his family name. After graduation he had served his brief stint in the Territorial Engineers -- without the ROTC grant he would never have finished college -- and in doing so had enjoyed to its utmost his first taste of working in the field. There had been the usual troubles at the western frontier with the Spanish colonies so that the colonial authorities in New York had decided that a military railroad was needed there. For one glorious year he had surveyed rights of way through the impassable Rocky Mountains and laboured in the tunnels that were being driven through the intractable rock. The experience had changed his life, and he had known just what he wanted from that time on. Along with the best minds from all the far-flung schools of the empire he had sat for the prestigious George Stephenson scholarship at Edinburgh University and had triumphed. Acceptance had meant automatic entrance into the higher echelons of the great engineering firm of Brassey-Brunel, and this too had come to pass. Edinburgh had been wonderful, despite the slightly curled lips of his English classmates toward his colonial background, or perhaps because of this. For the first time in his life he was among people who attached no onus to his name; they could not be expected to remember the details of every petty battle fought at the fringes of their empire for the past four hundred years. Washington was just another colonial to be classified with Hindoos, Mohawks, Burmese, Aztecs, and others, and he revelled in this group anonymity.
His rise had been brief and quick, and now he was reaching the summit. Beware lest he fall when his reach exceeded his grasp. No! He knew that he could handle the engineering, drive the American end of the tunnel just as he was driving the British one. And though he was aware that he was no financier he also knew how to talk to the men with the money, to explain just what would be done with their funds and how well invested they would be. It would be Whig money he was after -- though perhaps the Tories would permit greed to rise above intolerance and would climb on the bandwagon when they saw the others riding merrily away toward financial success.
Most important of all was the bearing this had upon a more important factor. Deep down he nursed the unspoken ambition to clear his family name. Unspoken since that day when he had blurted it out to his sister Martha and she had understood, when they had both been no more than children. Everything he accomplished, in some manner, reflected on that ambition, for what he accomplished in his own name was also done in the name of that noble man who had laboured so hard for his country, who in return for his efforts was felled by a volley of English bullets.
"Captain Washington, Captain Washington, sir." The voice penetrated the darkness of his thoughts, and as it did, he realized he had been hearing it for some time and not heeding. He started and took the envelope that Drigg held out to him, opened it and read it, then read it a second time more slowly. It was as Lord Cornwallis had said -- the motion had been passed; he was being offered the post.
"If you will come with me, sir."
He rose and brushed the wrinkles from his waistcoat and buttoned his jacket. With the note still in his hand he followed the secretary to the boardroom to stand at the foot of the long dark table. The room was silent, all eyes upon him, as Cornwallis spoke from his place at the head of the table.
"You have read and understood our communication, Captain Washington?"
"I have, sir. It appears to be a request to fill, in a single capacity, the dual positions now occupied by Sir Winthrop and Mr. Macintosh. You indicate that these gentlemen approve of the change?"
"Then I am most pleased to accept -- with but one reservation before I do. I would like to know Sir Isambard's feelings on the change."
It was the waving of a red flag to a bull, the insulting of the queen to a loyal Englishman, the use of the word "frog" to a Frenchman. Sir Isambard Brassey-Brunel was on his feet in the instant, leaning both fists hard on the polished rosewood of the table, fire in his eye and white anger in the flare of his nostril. A small man before whom, in his anger, large men trembled, yet Washington was not trembling because perhaps he was not the trembling type. A study in opposites they were, one tall, one slight, one middle-aged and smooth of skin whose great breadth of forehead grew greater with the passing days, the other with a forehead of equal magnitude but with a face browned and lined by sun and wind. A neatly turned-out English gentleman from the tips of his polished, handcrafted boots to the top of his tonsured head -- with a hundred guineas of impeccable Savile Row tailoring in between. A well-dressed colonial whose clothes were first class yet definitely provincial, like the serviceable and rugged boots intended more for wear than show.
"You wish to know my feelings," Sir Isambard said, "you wish to know my feelings." The words were spoken softly yet could be heard throughout all of that great room and perhaps because of this gentleness of tone were all the more ominous. "I will tell you my feelings, sir, strong feelings that they are, sir. I am against this appointment, completely against it and oppose it, and that is the whole of it."
"Well then," Washington said, seating himself in the chair placed there for his convenience. "That is all there is to it. I cannot accept the appointment."
Now the silence was absolute, and if a silence could be said to be stunned, this one certainly was. Sir Isambard was deflated by the answer, his anger stripped from him, and as anger, like air from a balloon, leaked from him he also sank slowly back into his seat.
"But you have accepted," Cornwallis said, baffled, speaking for all of them.
"I accepted because I assumed the board was unanimous in its decision. What is proposed is a major change. I cannot consider it if the man by whom I am employed, the master architect of this construction, the leading engineer and contractor in the world, is against it. I cannot, in all truth, fly in the face of a decision like that."
All eyes were now upon Sir Isambard whose face was certainly a study worth recording in its rapid changes of expression that reflected the calculations of the mighty brain behind it. First anger, giving way to surprise, followed by the crinkling forehead of cogitation and then the blankness of conclusion ending with a ghost of a smile that came and went as swiftly as a passing shadow.
"Well said, young Washington; how does it go? You shall not speak ill of me -- I am your friend, faithful and just upon you. I detect the quality of your classical education. The burden of decision now rests upon my shoulders alone and I shall not shirk it. I have the feeling that you know more of these matters than you intimate; you have been spoken to or you would not be so bold. But so be it. The tunnel must go through and to have a tunnel we apparently have to have you. I withdraw my objections. You are a good enough engineer I must admit, and if you follow orders and build the tunnel to my design, we will build well." He reached out his small, strong hand to take up a glass of water, the strongest spirit he ever allowed himself, while something like a cheer echoed from all sides. The chairman's gavel banged through the uproar, the meeting was concluded, the decision made, the work would go on. Sir Isambard waited stolidly to one side while the members of the board congratulated Washington and one another, and only when the engineer was free did he step to his side.
"You will share a cab with me." It was something between a request and a command.
"My pleasure." They went down in the lift together in silence and the porter opened the door for them and whistled for a cab. It was a hansom cab, two-wheeled, high, black, and sleek, the driver perched above with the reins through his fingers, these same reins leading down to one of the newfangled conversions that were slowly removing the presence of the horse from central London. Here there was no proud, high-stepping equine frame between the shafts, but instead a squat engine of some sort whose black, metal, bricklike form rested upon three wheels. The single front wheel swiveled at a tug upon the reins bringing the hansom up smartly to the curb, while a tug on another rein stopped the power so it glided to a halt.
This last was addressed to the round and gloomy face of the cabby who peered down through the opening from above like a misplaced ruddy moon.
"Begging your pardon, your honour, but I've not heard the destination."
"One hundred and eight Maida Vale." The slam of the hatch added punctuation to his words, and he turned to Washington. "If you had supposed you were returning with me to my home, dispel yourself of the idea at once."
"I had thought ..."
"You thought wrong. I wished only to talk with you in private. In any case, Iris is at some sort of theological tomfoolery at Albert Hall this evening, so we can be spared any scenes. She is my only daughter and she obeys me when she must, but she also shares my views of the world. When I explain to her that you have joined with my antagonists on the board to deprive me of my full responsibilities, that you now may wish to obtain my position for yourself -- "
"Be quiet. This is a lecture, not a discussion. That you have taken the position occupied by one of my agents and have completely turned against me. When I tell her those things, she will understand at once why I will bar my house from you in the future and she will return your ring to your club by messenger in the morning. We will continue our business relationship because there is no other way. But your engagement to my daughter is broken, you are no longer welcome in my home, and you will make no attempts, now or in the future, to contact Iris." He knocked loudly on the hatch with the head of his cane. "Stop the cab. Good-bye."
The above is the cover for the first UK edition of A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!. Feast your eyes on its fine use of bright pink and pale green! it is not a masterpiece? A superb example of the graphic arts at their finest? Well, no, it's not...
To quote the great Stephen Fry, sometimes there just isn't enough vomit in the whole world.
Here at diGriz Towers, we've spent some time trying to figure out exactly what those shapes are supposed to be. One might imagine that the big white curvey thing is a tunnel, and the little stringey bits on the left are - perhaps - symbolic of how the tunnel connects to yellow dots. The yellow dots aren't in the book, of course - this sort of thing appears a lot on covers and is explained away by the phrase "artistic licence". Sadly, it seems that in this case the artist's licence was a forgery.
The big white shape aside, we're very much baffled as to the nature of the smaller black shape. It appears to be connecting two big dots. Perhaps the black thing is a tunnel and the larger of the dots is America, and the smaller is Britain. Then again, perhaps the artist noticed a gap in the cover and decided to fill it in with a random shape.
Harry Harrison has voted this his worst cover ever, and we're inclined to agree with him - even those old yellow Gollancz covers are more attractive than this. If anyone can come up with a really good explanation (or better still, a justification) for this cover, please get in touch with us...
2001 05 10 - we've received our first plausible explanation for the cover from the very astute Andy:
As for the objects the bottom wavy thing is probably the tunnel, or more likely the underwater bridge that there were problems with when it broke free and bent. The two white dots and black line/blob thing is supposed to be the underwater excavator sub machine as it fits the description.
I shall now go back to being a SAD person!
"What we have is a thoroughly amusing pastiche of a typical Victorian or Edwardian melodrama, complete with heroic speeches, stalwart hero, black-hearted villains, and engineering marvels that would do Jules Verne's heart good."
"It is Harrison at his best and quite entertaining, though readers who get no thrill out of technological problem-solving may be bored. The literary gimmick of the book is that it is written in the style of a 19th century novel and the culture and language of the characters are from that period. The implicit premise here, dubious but necessary for the book, is that technological change need not lead to social or cultural change, which results in such charming anachronisms as gold-plated atomic-powered locomotives, a sexist and class-conscious Victorian society existing amidst sophisticated technology, electric-powered hansoms, and regally-appointed, gigantic airships. We never see the underside of this society, but as it comes through in the book, we would have been better off if old George [Washington] had indeed lost."
"The novel's plot is complicated and immensely satisfying. In a world which has not discovered vulgarity or the base appetite for violent entertainment, our hero expresses deep remorse after he has been forced to kill an attacker in his own defence. When the villain is finally unmasked, our hero demands: 'What could lead you, a respectable member of the community, to such reprehensible actions?" ... It all begins with a scheme to construct a railway tunnel under the Atlantic ... there are many adventures and close shaves as a result of the wicked French, but I shall not attempt to describe them for fear of spoiling the book. Probably it was something to do with the way Mr. Harrison skilfully inserts all the certainties and basic decencies of the Victorian novel into a revised contemporary setting, but I am not frightened to admit, at the risk of making a first appearance in Pseuds Corner, that I cried like a baby at the wedding between the beautiful, good Iris and brave Captain Washington. It is a book which I can recommend with all my heart..."
"A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! Is a banal little tale peopled with the standard cut-out characters. Harry Harrison (who ought to know better) should stick to those mock-medieval sagas on distant planets that he does so well."
"This is an exhilarating mixture of science fiction, true-grit derring-do in the old Boys' Own Paper tradition, and - the original bit - an adroitly managed telescoping of the time scale that confidently mixes up the centuries and gets Capt. Washington, the American colonial, involved in rocketry. Suspend your disbelief. Just swallow it. It goes down as smoothly as an oyster."
"Sci-fi with a difference. In one sense Mr Harrison has stopped the clock; America is still a British colony in 1973, the British Empire still going strong, aristos in charge, the workers firmly in their place. The combination of selective anachronism, social nostalgia and technical oddity, gives it a flavour all its own. Totally absurd or wholly engrossing - perhaps both!"
"What we have here is a thoroughly amusing pastiche of a typical Victorian or Edwardian melodrama, complete with heroic speeches, stalwart hero, black-hearted villains, and engineering marvels that would do Jules Verne's heart good. (Will some medium or yoga read it to him, please?)"
Having no interest in science and very little curiosity about the future I have never supposed there could be much joy in science fiction. Worse, I always assumed that intelligent people like Mr Kingsley Amis who expressed an interest in it were being either perverse or affected, like those of gentle breeding and humane education who affect an enthusiasm for football, or Coronation Street or other proletarian entertainments. As a result of this stupidity I had never read Mr Harry Harrison's work, or even heard of him, until happy chance decreed that A Transatlantic Tunnel Hurrah! should be the only novel sent for review the week after Christmas. It is very seldom indeed in a novel reviewer's experience that he has the feeling of Keats on first looking into Chapman's Homer. Mr Amis is rewarded for his perception by making a brief appearance as Lord Amis, Foreign Secretary of an England which might have been existing in 1973 if only historical events had transpired differently. Lucky, lucky Amis to have achieved immortality at last.
The great 'if' of history which Mr Harrison posits as a precondition for the idyllic world he describes is that the Christian armies should have lost the battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212, with the results that the Iberian peninsula became and remained a Muslim country, part of the Great Caliphate; Christopher Columbus never discovered America, which had to wait for Cabot; the Americans lost the war of independence and America remained a British colony. Other consequences are less easily explained, but Mr Harrison sets them down blithely enough, and it would be boring to demand the full explanation in every case. Germany is still divided into warring principalities; the throne of France survives, so does the aristocratic ascendancy in England; our currency is still undecimalised, aeroplanes are huge, slow objects driven by coal -- while trains are nuclear-powered; George Washington bred children and, perhaps most puzzling of all, Lord Keynes is still alive in his nineties and just beginning to exert his pernicious influence on an England which is still beautiful and free.
At one moment, a spiritualist's medium is invited to contemplate the sort of world which would exist if the Christians had indeed won the Battle of Navas do Tolosa in 1212. Her vision is described thus:
Urhhh ... urrhhh ... penicillin, petrochemicals, purchase tax ... income tax, sales tax, anthrax ... Wootworth's, Marks and Sparks ... I see strange things I see armies, warfare, killing, tons, tons, tons of bombs from the air on cities and people below hate him, kill him, poison gas, germ warfare, napalm bomb, atom bombs, hydrogen bombs.... it is, it is ... ARRRRGH!
The medium has a seizure, and everybody present decides that such things are the stuff of scientific romance rather than reality.
The headmaster of my preparatory school often used to make gloomy prophecies about what would have happened if Leonidas had failed to delay the Persians at Thermopylae or if the Greeks had lost the battle of Salamis -- I forget which. His imagination could encompass no greater horror than that we should all of us -- the Classical Sixth form of All Hallows, Cranmore, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, that is -- be lolling around on cushions smoking hashish through a hookah. Knowing the predilections of my contemporaries, I should not be in the least surprised to find this is exactly what many of them are doing now. Mr Harrison's schema is altogether more imaginatively contrived, and one finds oneself sighing time and again for the beautiful world which might have been.
The novel's plot is complicated and immensely satisfying. In a world which has not discovered vulgarity or the base appetite for violent entertainment, our hero expresses deep remorse after he has been forced to kill an attacker in his own defence. When the villain is finally unmasked, our hero demands: 'What could lead you, a respectable member of the community, to such reprehensible actions?' before allowing him the grace to shoot himself and save a proud family's name.
It all begins with a scheme to construct a railway tunnel under the Atlantic, for trains running at great speed and supported only by the force of magnetic repulsion in a vacuum. The sadness is that Mr Harrison did not revive Brunel's own original scheme for a vacuum-powered railway as its method of propulsion, but one can't expect everything and the vacuum is only provided as a means of obviating wind resistance in the tunnel. The American engineer put in charge of the whole venture is Captain Augustine Washington, a descendant, needless to say, of the traitor George Washington, shot by the British after losing the Battle of Lexington. Washington nurtures hopes of persuading Her Majesty to grant America independence, or at any rate dominion status. He also nurtures a courteous and chivalrous passion for Iris, the beautiful daughter of Sir Isambard Brassey-Brunel, England's greatest engineer and father of the whole tunnel scheme. However Sir Isambard is jealous of the Captain and refuses him permission to woo his daughter, much to the chagrin of both. Iris, being a good girl as well as beautiful, can never leave her father because she is all he has.
There are many adventures and close shaves as the result of sabotage attempts by the wicked French, but I shall not attempt to describe them for fear of spoiling the book. Probably it was something to do with the way Mr Harrison skilfully inserts all the certainties and basic decencies of the Victorian novel into a revised contemporary setting, but I am not frightened to admit, at the risk of making a first appearance in Pseuds Corner, that I cried like a baby at the wedding between the beautiful, good Iris and brave Captain Washington. It is a book which I can recommend with all my heart.
Auberon Waugh (1972)
Introduction to the New English Library edition of A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, taken from a review which appeared in The Spectator for December 1972.