Review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

DifferenceEngine20thAnnI can’t think of a better novel to start my exploration of steampunk then The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This award-winning novel, written by two controversial authors has been on my radar for a long time, but for whatever reason I could not bring myself to pick it up. Well no more excuses, I’m ready to dive into this world where around 1824, Charles Babbage succeeded with his Difference Engine and went on to develop the Analytical Engine.

The novel is set mostly in 1855 where the British Empire is a major power, France controls Mexico, the United States has fallen apart and Japan has been opened to the outside world. The Industrial (and Information) Revolution is in full swing in the United Kingdom. Britain is highly dependent on steam-powered mechanical computers, called Engines, invented by the now Lord Babbage. His inventions sparked massive upheaval to British society with a period of class warfare in the 1830s destroying the Old Guard under Wellington and replacing it with the merit lordships under Prime Minister Byron.

Although I began this summary by saying “novel”, in reality The Difference Engine is a collection of three short stories and several snippets at the end all connected by a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. We are first introduced to Sybil Gerard, prostitute and daughter of a Luddite agitator, who becomes an apprentice to a flashy “clacker” working for Sam Houston, the former President of Texas. When her tale ends we are introduced with Edward “Leviathan” Mallory, an explorer and paleontologist, whose reputation is being attacked by an anarchist desperate to get a hold of the “Modus”. Finally, our last POV character is the real-life diplomat and spy Laurence Oliphant, who shows us the dark side of this Victorian Information age.

TheDifferenceEngine(1stEd)I don’t want to gush about this novel, but I am kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. The Difference Engine is packed with realistic characters with believable flaws. For example, Mallory shows a passionate defense for his (wrong) theories about the age of Earth and has no problem visiting a prostitute despite what he thinks about the proper place of women in society. More importantly, the authors showed an amazing depth of knowledge about the culture and technological capabilities of the era. They say authors throw out most of their research when they start writing a story, but what they kept in showcases some awesome world building. Of course all of this info could be overwhelming for some people. Luckily we live in our own Information Age so keep Google on stand-by.

The superb prose helps paint a gritty, but believable setting. Although I’m not sure if the Difference Engine would have plausibly spawned an information revolution (using social media is difficult with room sized computer), I’m glad to see at least then authors didn’t write a utopia with their point of divergence. Although some have described the world of The Difference Engine as being worse than OTL, I personally do not view it as such. On one hand Victorian morals remain in force, slavery still exists and women are generally confined to specific roles in society. While some fields of technology in this alternate 1855 has advanced significantly, other fields, like medicine, remain woefully medieval. Also freedom of religion is not recognized due to state encouraged agnosticism (there is even a Young Men’s Agnostic Association) replacing religion without shedding the zealotry or intolerance. It is also implied how easy it is for the government to make you “disappear” once they purge your “citizen number” from the records.

difference_engine2_3882Still, the Industrial Radical Party’s ideas of merit lordship, or promoting the people responsible for the technological and scientific advancements to position’s of authority, can be described in the novel as a benign technocracy. You get the sense that the leaders are actually trying to improve society through their generous financial aid to the “savants”, scholarships for smart children of all classes and recognition of Victorian VIPs like Burton and Darwin, who OTL are either forgotten or vilified by many. Slavery is being chipped away, women are finding work outside the home and ignoring the patronizing by several British characters, there a fair few Brits who treat other cultures, like the Japanese, as equal. Of the course the final vision of the future (tread carefully, there may be spoilers ahead) looks grimdark indeed, unless you compare it to current predictions about post-singularity human society.

Of course I can see why that possible future might cause some to think this is just a cyberpunk with a Victorian dressing, but it is so much more than that. This early work of steampunk is mostly devoid of the cliches that dominate the genre, like airships and mad scientists. As fun as those tropes can be, it is refreshing to get a rich and imaginative glimpse at a world dealing with the opportunities and pitfalls that come with advanced technology. The fact that it is Victorian London and not near-future America how revolutionary simple technological advances can be on society.

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