The Difference Engine: Creative But Not Emotionally Engaging


In their steampunk novel, The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling create for us a Victorian Era world re-imagined as a time in which simple computing has become widespread.  There is no miniaturization and no plastics in this world, so the size of the computing machines, made of metal and wood, are enormous; the government of Great Britain runs a computer that fills a gigantic, 30-foot-ceiling’d hall.

There is no widespread use of electricity in the novel’s version of the mid-1800s, and there are no automobiles, but there are trains—even underground ones (though  the subway tunnels are notoriously noxious).  There are no telephones either— but you can rent the use of telegraph services.  And the steam necessary to turn turbines is produced mostly by coal– “rock-oil” in the story only recently becoming known– its uses still unfathomed.

Steampunk books always remind of the old Fred Flintstone T.V. show; these cartoons frequently showed the inhabitants of the Stone Age performing the most modern tasks with the most primitive tools (they also used dinosaur labor, aka, the subjugation and exploitation of small-brained creatures, aka, college internships).  Fred and Barney were the first steampunks.

Politically speaking, the authors have decided that in their version of history, North America never stayed united, but balkanized into antagonistic peoples, like Europe for most of its history.

And in jolly old England, Lord Byron did not die in his thirties, but lived on—to become Prime Minister of Great Britain!  He leads a party called the Radical Industrialists, or just “Rads,” which besides embracing the industrial and computing revolutions, have succeeding in replacing hereditary lordships with a “merit” peerage.  Somewhat surprisingly to this American, Gibson and Sterling never contend, or even hint, that this change was for the better.

The Luddites, an actual historical movement of workers opposed to being replaced by machines at their jobs, exists as well in this alternate reality, but they were throttled by the industrialists and painted by the pro-capitalist Rad-government as terrorists.

In the book, a character named Sybil considers the defeat of her father, a Luddite leader, as something more than just a lost battle:  “She had seen then, with heart-crushing clarity, the utter magnitude of her father’s defeat.  His ideals would be lost– not just misplaced but utterly expunged from history– to be crushed again and again and again, like the carcass of a mongrel dog under the racketing wheels of an express train.”

Did I mention these boys had a way with words?

Though, I’ll go ahead and admit that the book never satisfied me on the level of story—it never pulled me in or made care— it did succeed in reminding of an old girlfriend:  an impressive amount of energy and creativity is unleashed between the covers.

One the authors’ favorite games to play is to name-drop famous people from history and tell us what these same people are up to in their world:  Darwin, Keats (yes, he lived, too, though with a bad cough), Sam Houston, T.H. Huxley, etc.  They seem most proud of their alter-ego for Byron’s daughter, Ada Byron, whom they paint as a computer whiz known as the “Queen Of Engines” (that would be difference engines, or early computers).  They also gush adoration for Charles Babbage, “father of the difference engine and the Newton of our age!”

One thing the authors take pains to do is to show some of the many downsides to the world they’ve created.  Everything from the dismal working conditions of the “clackers” operating the giant computing machines, to the non-stop and nearly universal government surveillance enabled by the presence of devices than can gather, sort, and manipulate data.  Their world is also one in which London has become one giant cesspool of man-made environmental disasters.

Stylistically, Gibson and Sterling start each section of the book with a verbal portrait of character or scene which will set the tone for that section.  Their language is more ornate than usual for these two; they purposefully intone a quasi-19th-century manner of speech.

One artistic choice I did not like was their choice to wait until seventy pages into the book to introduce a person who will become one of the main characters for the rest of the novel.  It was choices like these that kept me from really sinking my teeth into the story.

It’s not typically a good idea for an author to permanently switch main characters too far into a novel—the reader has committed time and emotional investment with the first set of characters; it will be hard for him or her to immediately recharge and accept a new “family” to care about—not to mention the fact that now the author has lost their trust:  Will he just toss these new characters aside, too?  If so, why should I, the reader, start caring about them?


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