The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
This collaborative effort from William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (the only to date) is a prime example of the ‘Steampunk’ genre and a bold, imaginative ‘alternate history’ novel.
It is set in London in 1855 where the computer age has arrived a century ahead of time with the great steam-driven (Charles) Babbage Engines powering the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to this huge leap in technology Great Britain with her calculating-cannons, steam dreadnoughts, machine-guns and information technology bestrides the globe like an unopposed colossus.
The Industrial Radicals led by Lord Byron and the scientists run things and the Tory Party and hereditary peerage have been eclipsed. Luddite anti-technological working class revolutionaries have been ruthlessly suppressed. In this alternate reality the once mighty USA is fragmented and divided into the United States, the Confederate States and the Republics of Texas and California and even a Communist Manhattan Island.
It is Great Britain and not America that opens Japan to Western trade, the Irish famine did not happen because the Industrial Radical Government assisted the grateful Irish and relations between the French Empire (Britain’s main rival) are cordial, with its ruler Napoleon III married to an English woman and an entente in place.
All seems rosy but there is treachery and intrigue at the heart of government and Sybil Gerard, fallen woman, Edward Mallory, palaeontologist, and Lady Ada Byron, compulsive gambler and mathematical genius are unwittingly caught up in a conspiracy that could change the world.
There is much to like about ‘The Difference Engine’ with its ingenious premise and concept as well as its well drawn and engaging characters. With a plot involving clackers (Victorian hackers geddit?), punch cards (acting as the MacGuffin) and looming artificial intelligence this is an intelligent and far reaching fantasy novel.
It can be enjoyed on many different levels: as a mystery, as alternate history, as science fiction and as a clever warning about investing too much into machinery and computers (James Cameron would love this if he has not already read it!) This is a Victorian era that really shakes the cage and turns the world upside down and inside out. As the pages turned I had to smile at the ingenuity and creativity of the two authors. They have certainly done their homework.
Kudos also must go to them as they capture the Victorian era so well: Accents, expressions and culture are expertly crafted into the larger narrative giving proceedings the necessary authenticity and believability. Others have tried and failed at this because we just cannot buy into what they are selling; well Gibson and Sterling succeed on every level with this wonderfully intricate and rewarding work.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy Jules Verne, HG Wells and their modern counterparts then this is an excellent novel that will not only entertain but entice you into learning more about Babbage and many of the other historical figures who play a part. In that regard it is clear why it is has been so highly regarded in the last couple of decades.
On an interesting footnote in 1991 a year after the novels publication, a Difference Engine based on Babbage’s original plans was completed by the London Science Museum. Once completed, both the engine and its printer worked flawlessly, and still do. The difference engine and printer were constructed using 19th century technology, resolving a long-standing debate whether Babbage's design would actually have worked. This makes the novel all the more plausible and in some respects, chilling!
The Difference Engine
By William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
First Published 1990
New Edition Published 2011 by Gollancz
ISBN: 978 0 575 09940 1
This The Difference Engine book review was written by Daniel Cann
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