The Difference Engine
(Bantam, $7, 429 pages; published 1991-92. Gollancz, £6.99, 383 pages,
paperback, first published in the UK 1990, this edition published 8
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
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
-- 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
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
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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