the contextual life

thoughts without borders

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

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In my mind there are a few reasons that warrant a less than favorable review: you are paid by a publication and want to be honest or a book is being widely praised and you disagree either with the quality of the writing or the quality of the content. The nature of this blog is to bring attention to works of art I can wholeheartedly recommend and to shed light on their deserving artists. However, in the case of this latest book I read, The Difference Engineby William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, I feel compelled to say a few words even though it fell short of my expectations.

The Difference Engine, published in 1990, is held up as a seminal work in the steampunk genre, a category of science fiction whose stories take place in an alternate version of the Victorian era. Often cited as one of its best examples, this collaborative work is a mystery-adventure novel set in 1855 Britain with Gibson and Sterling imagining what it would have been like had Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, inventor, and mechanical engineer, created his Analytic Engine, a machine controlled by punch cards that would act as a calculator, formulating results based on preceding computations.

According to these two giants of cyberpunk, a category of science fiction known to speculate on the effects of technology in society, the outcome is devastating. In this retelling of history there are two forces at work—the Luddites, a group of working class revolutionaries who despise technological advancement, and the Industrial Radical Party, a political party led by Lord Byron who are brought to power by trade unions.

The story is told in five parts—or “iterations” as they’re called—and made up of three distinct story lines: one following Sybil Gerard, a “fallen” woman and daughter of the executed leader of the Luddites; the next, the escapades of Edward Mallory, a paleontologist and explorer who is dragged into the fray by Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter and Charles Babbage’s protege, after she hands over a much sought-after box of punch cards; the third strand is the story of Laurence Oliphant, portrayed in the book as a journalist who often comes to the aid of Mallory.

These three threads form a socio-political adventure complete with fight scenes, anarchy, espionage, and intricate historical manipulations weaved throughout. The Difference Engine is sophisticated in its writing and well detailed but large chunks felt murky and forced and failed to retain my attention or interest. The characters, while fleshed out on paper, failed to create any emotional connection throughout their 429-page life, ultimately leaving me ambivalent about their fates.

The Difference Engine is possibly best appreciated by someone with knowledge of and passion for British and American history. For the rest of us it would have benefited from being about 100 pages shorter.

If you’re a connoisseur, aspiring or full-fledged, of science fiction in general and steampunk in particular, this is a must-read but keep your expectations low. If I were the star-giving type, this one would get 3 out of 5.

Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines—so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye—the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as rail-cars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The white-washed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White-coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. Their hair was swaddled in wrinkled white berets, their mouths and noses hidden behind squares of white gauze.

Tobias glanced at these majestic racks of gearage with absolute indifference. “All day starin’ at little holes. No mistakes either! Hit a key-punch wrong and it’s all the difference between a clergyman and an arsonist. Many’s the poor innocent bastard ruined like that . . .”

The tick and sizzle of the monster clockwork muffled his words.

::[A Conversation with William Gibson]::
In the latest issue of The Paris Review, William Gibson speaks with David Wallace-Wells about his life as a science fiction author. Here are some highlights:

“I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing technoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness.”

“Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their [the Victorian] landscape. bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were very few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.”

“The only computers I’d ever seen in those days [late-1970s, early-1980s] were the things the size of the side of the barn. And then one day, I walked by a bus stop and there was an Apple poster. The poster was a photograph of a businessman’s jacketed, neatly cuffed arm holding a life-size representation of a real-life computer that was not much bigger than a laptop is today. Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe. . . . I think I got cyberspace on the third try, and I thought, Oh, that’s a really weird word. I liked the way it felt in the mouth—I thought it sounded like it meant something while still being essentially hollow.”

The Difference Engine at Random House


Written by Gabrielle

July 25, 2011 at 8:45 am

3 Responses

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  1. I saw that a special addition of this was out, and this is a really good, thoughtful review. I think it will still keep it’s place in the queue (my enormous queue), but it does pique my interest! Maybe a good intro to William Gibson?


    July 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

    • i’m not too up on all of Gibson’s work but I would imagine Neuromancer would be a better intro. i want to say it was his first full-length novel and is the first in a trilogy. The Difference Engine is worth checking out. i just got a little impatient towards the end. very well-written though.


      July 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm

  2. […] Gabrielle Gantz revisits William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. […]

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