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The Difference Engine

by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

(Bantam, $7, 429 pages; published 1991-92. Gollancz, 6.99, 383 pages, paperback, first published in the UK 1990, this edition published 8 May 2003.)

Rating: "A-" -- a tour-de-force of Victorian alternate history. Recommended, with reservations.

The Difference Engine explores a world in which Charles Babbage built a practical mechanical computer in the mid-19th century. Britain is thus going through both the Industrial and Information Revolutions simultaneously. The book combines Sterling's wildman inventiveness with Gibson's brooding, streetwise characters, both shoved back one and a half centuries into an obsessively-detailed and weirdly-transmogrified London of 1855.

Gibson and Sterling explore such topics as dinosaur physiology, Catastrophism vs. Uniformitarian geology, chaos theory, Victorian sexual practices, the Red Manhattan commune, treachery and graft in the Republic of Texas, British Imperial realpolitik, pre-industrial Japanese robotics, and mechanical-video technology. "Splendidly extraordinary.... It is stimulating to have one's intelligence overestimated by such brilliant writers." -- the Times of London.

The Difference Engine is less a novel than a series of interconnected stories and vignettes -- a combination that worked well for me, but has irritated others -- see the readers' comments at amazon.com. The book reads more like "real" history than fiction -- loose ends abound, mysteries are unresolved, and characters disappear, just as in real life. If you like tidy, linear, tightly-plotted novels, The Difference Engine may not be for you. But --

Those willing to grant two master writers a large dollop of poetic license will enjoy the hauntingly strange landscape, filled with steam-propelled cars, 19th-century credit cards, and "clackers" -- the computer hackers of the day ... [The] depth of imagining is magnificent ... it's an immersion in a fascinating, wholly realized milieu.

-- from Robert J. Sawyer's review, which is the only one I found on the net that I can recommend (CAUTION: SPOILERS).

Almost every character in the book was a real person, or is borrowed from a period novel (by Disraeli, himself a character, a nice self-referential touch). The depth of research into Victoriana is awesome and a bit daunting. Fortunately, the estimable Eileen Gunn ("Stable Strategies for Middle Management") has provided the Difference Dictionary, an essential and spoiler-free reference, which you should have at hand when reading the book (it was included in the Japanese edition).

And serious Difference Engine students may enjoy Elisabeth Kraus' (of Graz University) academic essay Gibson and Sterling's Alternative History: The Difference Engine as Radical Rewriting of Disraeli's Sybil, which in turn references "Cyperbunk [sic] Meets Charles Babbage" in the Journal of Victorian Studies.... a title of which Vincent Omniaveritas would have approved, I'm sure.

In a "real" alternate world, I'm not sure if history would have been greatly affected had Babbage succeeded -- his machine would have been thousands of times slower than even the first vacuum-tube computers (which were themselves cumbersome beasts -- ENIAC (1946) weighed 30 tons). And marginally-reliable at best -- Babbage failed partly because his Difference Engine required technology beyond the capabilities of the time. In any case, the mid-nineteenth century may not have been ripe for an Information Revolution -- maybe it wasn't yet "steam-engine time"? But I haven't done the research that Sterling and Gibson did -- Sterling in particular is an expert on 19th-century technology -- and their premise is certainly plausible enough for fiction. And the story is more than strong enough to overcome such niggling.

I read The Difference Engine when it was first published, liked it, and just finished rereading it, with at least as much pleasure as on first reading. It's an oddly compelling book -- clearly not to everyone's taste, but The Difference Engine suited, and entertained me. I hope I've conveyed enough of the flavor (and problems) of the book for you to judge whether or not to give it a go. As always, your comments are welcome.


Review by Peter D Tillman; more of Peter D Tillman's reviews can be found at: SF Site and Amazon.com. Google "Peter D. Tillman" +review for many more!

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