Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A pre-Steampunk novel

Review: A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
By Harry Harrison
(Tor Books)

Cover image from Macmillan Books website

     I had long wanted to read this book, but kept putting it off. With the death last month of its author, I decided I had waited long enough.
     A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! is science fiction in the Jules Verne vein, and a tale from an alternate history (for details on the thought processes that went into the writing of the book, visit the author’s official website). It features trains, submarines, a mixture of archaic and futuristic road-not-taken technology and a love of brass. As such, it can also be considered “steampunk” or perhaps “proto-steampunk,” though I agree with other reviewers who maintain it is more of an homage to Verne.
     The plot, as the title suggests, concerns the construction of a transatlantic tunnel between the U.S. and England (the “Chunnel” writ large), which would be a stupendous enough feat in our time, but Harrison has set it in a world where the U.S. is still a part of the British empire, our revolutionary war failing with the execution of “the traitor” George Washington. In the then present 1973 (yes, this is a fairly old book, though recently re-released), an engineer descendant of Washington is given responsibility for constructing the tunnel as a kind of stimulus to revive the economy. He faces problems of professional jealousy (his fiancee’s father was the head engineer on the project before him and doesn’t want to give the post up), sabotage and the technical problems of such a project. There’s a little action, a little (Victorian-style) romance and a few in-jokes (a detective Richard Tracy; characters named after fellow SF authors).
      All in all, I liked (but didn’t love) A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, but I have one burning question that no other reviewers or commentators have addressed: Who is “Brabbage”?

     They were now in a laboratory of some sort with wires and electric apparatus on benches, all dominated by a mass of dark-cased machinery that covered one wall. Through glass windows set in the mahogany front of the impressive machine, brass gears could be seen, as well as rods that turned and spun. Clarke patted the smooth wood with undisguised affection.
     “A Brabbage engine, one of the largest and most complex ever made.”
-- A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, p. 125, TOR, 2011

     “Brabbage” sound suspiciously like Charles Babbage, whose prototype computers feature prominently in many steampunk works, including William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. So, my question is did Harrison simply misspell Babbage’s name? Is this just a typo in the edition of the novel I bought? Or did Harrison deliberately change the name for some reason?
     Also, why has no one else noticed this? In 1973, sure, it might have been missed, but not post-Difference Engine. C’mon!

Postcript on "Brabbage":

      While reading another book with a steampunk slant, I saw reference to "Brunel and Babbage." In Transatlantic Tunnel, the father of Gus Washington's fiance and former chief engineer on the tunnel project is named Isambard Kingdom Brassey-Brunel.  An earlier, historical Isambard Kingdom Brunel is an important and innovative engineer who, among other things, tried to build a tunnel beneath the Thames. He was a good deal more practical than Babbage, and it seems possible that Harrison was suggesting that if the two men had worked together, Babbage's computers might have become reality, or that later engineers and scientists could have looked to boththeir inventions and come up with a hybrid or combination of them to produce working computers. In either case, the resulting machines might have been dubbed "Brabbage" engines in their honor. It's a possibility, at least. If anyone has any thoughts or facts, please let me know.


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