Books #1

This is going to be pretty much a work-in-progress. It’s a very personal take on books I’m reading, for the most part (though as you’ll see in Books #2, it’ll also encompass books I’ve read). No doubt some of you won’t agree with my opinions. You’d be wrong, though! Seriously, I’m always open to discussion or sensible criticism (but being wrong just because you think I’m wrong isn’t a valid argument, I’m afraid).

I get through a hell of a lot of books, as I’m housebound to a great extent – I have severe COPD as well as ME – so I thought it might be an idea to share my thoughts. Or you can look upon it as sheer self-indulgence – either works for me…

In the mid seventies I read a book, the subject of which seized hold of my imagination and refused to let go. I’ve never been able to find it again, as I’d completely forgotten what it was called or who it was by but, browsing Green Metropolis (See Cheap Books), I stumbled across it quite by accident, and now I’ve got another copy of Harry Harrison’s “A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!” (Note: also published as ATunnel Through the Deeps which, compared to the original title, is positively leaden.)

The title saves you wondering what it’s about – it’s the building of a (rail) tunnel between Britain and the United States. You might think that was sufficient in itself, but as a bonus it’s set in an alternate universe, one where the Christians lost the battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and the Iberian Peninsula remained in Muslim hands as part of the Great Caliphate; America lost the Revolutionary War and remains a colony; the petrochemical industry never happened, nor did two world wars; aircraft are coal-fired (a principal that – when you get to it – has appeared several times in science-fiction, and may actually work; the engineering is sound). And so it goes…

Nothing is perfect, though, and a couple of jarring notes creep in. Epoxy resins are, apparently, widely used, though as far as I know, these originated as offshoots of the petrochemical industry, as did butane and propane, both commonly used in the tale for heat, light and propulsion, and as an American, Harrison’s rendering of a working-class English accent grates, though in fairness, he’s no worse at that than many English writers. But hey, it’s a cracking tale and it does what it’s supposed to do superbly – it entertains immensely, and takes you away to another place, and more than that you can’t ask of a book. Well, OK, you can, but it’s enough for me.

The construction of the tunnel is as fascinating as it is fraught with danger, and whether it would actually work is irrelevant (it’s a work of fiction, after all – if we can accept an alternate universe, we can accept the tunnel as presented to us – it works for me), not a page – not even a paragraph – is superfluous to the narrative (Stephen King please note!). The novel is set in 1973, and, of course, Elizabeth II is on the throne – but at that point all resemblance to the seventies we knew is lost.

The tale, written somewhat in the manner of a Victorian novel (the feel of the England depicted is slightly Victorian, too, with horses only just having been displaced by electric power units for Hansom cabs!) opens with a high-speed train journey – 44 years ahead of reality, and nuclear-powered, to boot – very appropriate as a nuclear power-plant is merely a steam-engine with delusions of grandeur – but unlike its modern counterpart, it heads at breakneck speed from London to Penzance, rather than for the channel and France. Penzance is, of course, the English terminus of the eponymous tunnel, the tale’s current subject being the personal assistant to the Marquis Cornwallis, carrying a message from his master to the tunnel’s engineer, Augustus Washington (and yes, these names are significant).

Now find a copy and read on…

Footnote: My copy, published by NEL in 1972 has an introduction of wonderful eccentricity by Auberon Waugh.