on 19 February 1999
After reading the opinions of other readers here, I wondered if we had all read the same book. I suspect that those who find this book a disappointment came to it hoping to read a work more in line with previous books by either of these two well-respected science fiction authors. Finding something different, they left unsatisfied. If one approaches this book with an open mind, I think they will be pleasantly suprised. The two authors paint a convincing, detailed alternative history that weaves several narratives into a cohesive whole that falters only slightly at the end. The characters are for the most part three-dimensional, and fit well within the world Gibson and Sterling have created. The atmosphere is dark and brooding, and the benifits and costs of an England dominated by steam-driven computers are well represented. The poltical climate and "world of the difference engine" are both plausible and entertaining. The only place in which the authors falter is in their attempt to move the narrative beyond entertainment into the philosophical and metaphysical. Then ending is somewhat reminiscent of the finale of Nueromancer, and is written in the sterotypical clipped Gibson style, which contrasts sharply with the rest of the novel. Had Gibson and Sterling left their work in the more mundane realm of (alternative) historical adventure, they would have had an unqualified success. Depsite that shortcoming, I recommend this book wholeheartedly. It is unlike any other work by these two authors, and thus you should expect something different. It is a rousing adventure set in a plausible alternative world, similar in tone and style to Frost's excellent "List of 7," only slightly hindered by some metaphysical trappings.
Well written, with a sense of humour (and a surprisingly explicit sex-scene in the middle portion) the Difference Engine is set in an alternate "steampunk" universe (indeed it is credited with launching the genre) where the Victorian Aristocracy have been overthrown and the British Empire is ruled by savants, engineers and scientists. The story mainly follows the adventures of palaeonotologist Edward Mallory who has come into the possession (from Lady Ada Byron) of a mysterious box that is sought by anarchists as the basis for the overthrow of the Radical Meritocracy. However, his central part in the story is taken over by the shadowy Laurence Olifant towards the end of the book.
"The Difference Engine" makes much use of a number of story telling devices - there's a McGuffin (the box), a Chekov's Gun, a Femme-Fatale and a Man-of Action, and a twist at the end. The plot, however, is tenuous to say the least and is reliant on the McGuffin for driving the story along (well, that's what McGuffin's are for, isn't it?). I very nearly gave up on it early on because it seemed to me to be going nowhere. My persistence paid off, however, and it developed (slowly, I admit) to an unputdownable page turner.
It is certainly an enjoyable read but I must admit to having felt a little let down by the very end. What had I learned? Where had the story taken me? Where was the narrative linking the start, middle and end of the story? It is the lack of a strong plot that lets the book down and the strength of the story telling that lifts it.
I certainly recommend it but at the same time suggest that you may need to work hard to maintain interest in the early scenes. (Much) better than average but not exactly top notch...
This is a story of how things might have been if the brilliant Charles Babbage had succeeded in creating his Computer (the Difference Engine) - all brass cogs, gears and thundering steam.
William Gibson (whose other books such as the stunning Neuromancer et al. are quite different) and Bruce Sterling have expanded this idea and peopled a reinvented Victorian Age with real names in new situations.
As someone who often thinks he would have liked to have been a Victorian (if only they had had more technology) this book is just perfect. I have now read it three times - and still thought it was excellent on the third time round.
Do not expect anything similar to Gibson's other sci-fi or else you will be disappointed. If, on the other hand you really enjoyed Neal Stephenson's (similar-ish) "Diamond Age" - then "The Difference Engine" is the book for you.
on 19 March 1999
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found the first part of it especially hard to leave. It is set in the high Victorian period, and manages to convey great atmosphere- you and almost smell the coalfire-fed smog.
Basically, computers have arrived a century early, with the perfection of Babbage's mechanical calculating machine, operated with programmable punch-cards. The action mainly revolves around a set of these punch-cards, which carry a special program, although you'll have to wait until the end of the book to find out what.
I did feel hovever that the plot got a little lost towards the end, and there were also some rather unnecessarily prolonged violent, action-based passages, but this doesn't really detreact from what is an interesting thought-experiment on what could possibly have occured, if the Engine had succeeded.
I enjoyed this novel a great deal; as an avid reader of historical fiction I found the author`s research and the alternative world they've created to be both creditable and believable. The splintering of the narrative into different threads is a common device in crime novels; there is - fundamentally - a detective mystery at the foundation of this extraordinarily imaginative book. At times it read rather like a John Buchan/ Richard Hannay novel on a laudanum trip - nothing wrong with that.
The story - made deceptively more complex due to its overall structure - does have its resolutions, but they are not where the reader would expect them to be were this a straightforward narrative; you have to be aware of what you have read in previous chapters and the final section containing documents, news reports, snippets of information etc., does much to flesh out some of the missing historical background only alluded to in parts of the preceding narratives. I would also have thought the vague, open-ended nature of the closing page is well within any science-fiction reader's tolerance levels for dystopian speculation, surely?
I`m a little perplexed at the number of negative reviews this book has received here - If you don`t like it that's fair enough - I`m not out to decry anyone's opinion, but I found it to be an entertaining, immersive and quite literary piece of work, well deserving of it's growing reputation as a key example of steampunk.
on 4 September 2000
I bought this at a book shop a while ago on the title alone, and I thought it was worth it.
If you know a little about Babbage and are intruiged by the potential his (uncompleted) machines had, I think you can really imagine the world this book depicts. Not just the mechanics of Babbages creations and their offspring, but the mechanics of society which has evolved along with them. Two merged Revolutions, both Industrial and Informational.
I also found the story to be interesting, but excuse me if I rave about the setting it is in most of all. :)
on 30 December 2013
Whether the idea of "steampunk" strikes you as fascinating or rather silly, you owe it to yourself to read this magnificent book. It's really most impressive that two American authors could have put together so detailed and convincing a portrait of Victorian England in 1855 and subsequently - with a few small changes, such as the ubiquitous presence of mechanical calculators large and small, and the prime ministership of Lord Byron. Gibson and Sterling cleverly realised that the widespread discontent after the Napoleonic Wars could easily have turned out differently, with the Duke of Wellington being discredited and assassinated, and the Tory government being replaced by a permanent Industrial Radical administration. In a way it's a geek wish-fulfilment fantasy: the country is run by eminent scientists and technologists such as Babbage, Brunel, Darwin and T.H. Huxley, with the result that everything that can be calculated and project-managed is done with great flair and efficiency. Difference engines - essentially steam-powered mechanical calculators - are everywhere, driving kinotropes (computer-like visual displays) and vehicles, controlling huge cannon that help to win the Crimean War, and (most important of all) laying the foundations of an all-encompassing police state. Familiar names keep cropping up in unfamiliar situations: Sam Houston has fled from Texas after apparently embezzling the state's funds; John Keats is a kinotrope expert; Benjamin Disraeli is a sensational novelist and reporter; and Percy Bysshe Shelley, that dangerous revolutionary, has been imprisoned on St. Helena on the orders of Lord Byron himself.
But all is not for the best in this possible world. Against a background of advanced technology that seems not so different from our own world, 19th century attitudes and beliefs are as callous and cavalier as ever. The contrasts between rich and poor are comparable only, perhaps, to present-day India or China. And not everyone, by any means, is content with the world created by the "Rad Lords". There are still Luddites; foreign agents of all descriptions interact with each other, the criminal underworld, and various police agencies; and the prime minister's daughter, Ada Byron, the Enchantress of Numbers, creates havoc wherever she goes with her gambling habit, her immense influence, and her vastly underrated ingenuity.
on 13 September 2015
The Difference Engine is really one of those books which is certainly worth reading, but with caveats. This is primarily an interesting book rather than a well-constructed one; read it, but read it aware that it has very significant flaws as a work of fiction.
The main problem is that Gibson and Sterling are primarily interested in world-building and technological exposition here, and almost all other aspects of the book are subordinated and suffer because of it. Ostensibly the book is a thriller, but it lacks the pace and taught focus of a genuine thriller; it is primarily a book in which the authors are interested in exploring philosophical ideas and 'hard' sci fi concepts. Some people will love that, but most will find it an obtuse book. The writing and characterisation are certainly accomplished in places - sometimes very much so - and the book does have its individual moments, but it too often drags and plods, and it very much lacks in real consistency. The plot is not adequately resolved, and ultimately devolves into some fairly opaque suggestions in the final pages. On the positive, I'll mention the world-building again, lest it look like I was passing over it - it is very well developed, and pretty persuasive as a setting - by no means an easy thing to do when creating an alternate history universe.
Certainly a book worth experiencing, but be warned, you will probably find it a difficult book to fully enjoy.
on 1 April 2010
The Difference Engine is a seminal work of steampunk by the two writers who did most to create cyberpunk as a genre and an aesthetic. In an alternate history, Babbage succeeded in perfecting his mechanical computer and the resulting technological revolution has supercharged the British Empire. The changes that wracked the C19th century are even more extreme in this timeline, with Lord Byron and his Radicals having eliminated the landed aristocracy, the 13 colonies in America subject to brutal divide and rule, and British naval power catalysed by analytic-artillery. Nonetheless, disorder lurks beneath the surface, and shadowy figures plot revolution...
With such a set-up, what could possibly go wrong? Indeed, much doesn't. There are delightfully grimy depictions of London life, riveting action scenes, an extraordinary number of clever allusions to political, social and scientific history (of which I probably missed the vast majority), and some great set-piece scenes, such as the coal powered 'car' race. Unfortunately, the plot as a whole is a mess. Events orbit around a set of punch-card for an analytical engine, a classic MacGuffin if ever there was one. But these threads never resolve in anything like a satisfactory way. This is something that most Gibson novels threaten to do, but he is normally able to bring everything together by the end. The authors attempt to justify the arbitrariness of the plot through frequent allusions to chaos theory, non-linear and seemingly random relations between events. Unfortunately, this is not only unsatisfactory as a plot device, it very much dates the book in the 1990s, as do the allusions to Michel Foucault and his idea of the panopticon.
I did enjoy most parts of the book on their own terms, but I came away feeling disappointed. Perhaps the authors should have abandoned the idea of having a single narrative and instead written the book as a series of interconnected vignettes. In any case, this is a fantastically creative work of imagination and world building, but is somewhat disappointing as a work of fiction.
on 9 June 1998
Like most people, apon completing the book I thought "How can you finish the book with the plot unresolved?". Apon reflection I have decided that the "plot" was just a mechanism for this sublime tour of alternate England. Powerful images dominate this book. The detail put into the characters and their surrounds had me unable to put the book down. After a couple of days I found that even my dreams were being influenced by the images contrived in the novel. I also found some parrallels with modern life. Is it possible that the society in this book was unable to cope with the technology that it had created?