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Ingeniously crafted and brilliantly researched,
This review is from: The Difference Engine (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (Paperback)
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.