The Difference Engine: Thickly veiled and imperceptible

science fiction book reviews William Gibson The Difference Enginescience fiction book reviews William Gibson The Difference EngineThe Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, two major SciFi powerhouses, joined forces to produce The Difference Engine, a classic steampunk novel which was nominated for the 1990 British Science Fiction Award, the 1991 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1992 John W. Campbell Memorial Award and Prix Aurora Award. I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version which was produced in 2010 and read by the always-wonderful Simon Vance.

The Difference Engine takes place in a nearly unrecognizable Victorian England. The fundamental “difference” between this alternate history and the real one is that Charles Babbage succeeded in building his Difference Engine — the first analytical computer. Babbage Difference EngineThus, the information age develops (along with the industrial revolution) in the social, political, and scientific milieu of the 19th century. This little historical event — the development of the steam-powered computer — has a vast impact on subsequent history: Meritocracy takes hold in England (you’ll recognize many of England’s new “savant” lords), the American states never unite, Karl Marx makes Manhattan a commune, Benjamin Disraeli becomes a trashy tabloid writer, and Japan begins to emerge as a world power with England’s help.

The idea of an earlier technological revolution affecting the course of history is fascinating. But the best part of The Difference Engine is the flash steampunk setting: full of gears and engines, pixilated billboards and slideshows, unreliable firearms, and lots of rum slang that’s right and fly.

The problem with The Difference Engine is the plot. It meanders slowly and strangely and is vaguely focused on a box of computer punch-cards which contain unknown important information. Several people are interested in the cards including Sybil, a courtesan who’s based on Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, mathematician Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron), a paleontologist nicknamed Leviathan Mallory, and the author Laurence Oliphant. Unfortunately, Mallory, who ends up being an Indiana Jones type of character, is the only one who’s interesting or likable. His segment of the novel has some exciting moments, but they seem only tangentially related to what comes before and after.

Most of the events seem random, obscure, and unconnected. Perhaps the book is not at all about plot, though, because the authors seem to be trying to make a clever association between Gödel’s mathematical theorems, chaos theory, punctuated equilibrium, and artificial intelligence. I’m not really sure… If this is truly their intention, it is too thickly veiled and probably imperceptible to many readers. The Matrix-like ending will leave most people scratching their heads and wondering why they spent so many hours reading such inaccessible stuff.

The Difference Engine is a smart and stylish concept novel that just doesn’t quite work.

The Difference Engine — (1990) With Bruce Sterling. Publisher: The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time — in the High Victorian age. The Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic engines, is in full swing. Great Britain, with the benefit of this new technology, prepares to better the world.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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2 comments

  1. It’s nice to see my reaction to that book confirmed. I loved the ideas, though, much as you did.

  2. Same here, I did not finish this. I recognized the quality, but in similar way to Windup Girl I was unable to become interested in what was going on.

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