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Book Review

The Difference Engine

Reviewed by Robert J. Sawyer

This review was first published in The Globe and Mail, Canada's National Newspaper in April 1991.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Bantam Books, 429 pages, 1991, CDN$24.95.

Copyright © 1991 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

The Difference Engine belongs to that sub-genre of Science Fiction known as the alternative-history story. It assumes a divergence in the past between the way things did go and the way things might have gone.

In this case, the hinge is the work of Charles Babbage (1792-1871). In our history, Babbage, a British mathematician, came up with the idea for a "difference engine" — a mechanical computer — but died without ever having built one. In Gibson's and Sterling's world, Babbage does build his computer, and England sees the industrial revolution and the information revolution simultaneously.

Gibson, who lives in Vancouver, won the Hugo and Nebula awards for his 1984 novel Neuromancer. That novel firmly established the "cyberpunk" school of SF — gritty, technophillic, slang-rich tales of the near-future. Sterling, a Texan, although not as big a name in SF, was a natural collaborator for Gibson, having written the cyberpunk novel Islands in the Net and edited Mirrorshades, the definitive anthology of cyberpunk short stories.

We should laud them for not pooling their talents to simply do another iteration of cyberpunk. What they've produced here is something completely new for both of them, and a work, I suspect, that neither could have done on his own.

That said, in significant ways, the final product is flawed. It posits a series of mysteries, none of which are resolved to the reader's satisfaction. First, we're led a merry chase after a deck of stolen French computer cards. But about halfway through this plot line peters out without the cards ever really amounting to much.

Next, we keep hearing of a mysterious antagonist who goes by the code-name "Captain Swing." One naturally assumes that Swing's true identity will be a key revelation, but we never find out who he is.

Finally, in an intriguing device, portions of the book are narrated by an unidentified omniscience, apparently looking over data from the year 1855. One guesses early on that this might be an intelligent computer — perhaps the often-referred-to, but never-seen Grand Napoleon, a super-powerful French ordinateur. But Gibson and Sterling leave the mystery of the storyteller's identity as an exercise for the reader.

In fact, the reader can get lots of exercise with this book. An enormous familiarity with things Victorian is assumed, making for frequent trips to the encyclopedia to decipher where the novel's timeline diverges from our own (quickly now: was the real London paralyzed by a smog inversion layer in the summer of 1855?).

Almost every character in the book is a real person, or is taken from Victorian pop literature. Dandy Mick, who figures prominently in the book's opening, is borrowed from a Disraeli novel, and Byron, Darwin, and Disraeli himself all play roles — although roles different from those they had in our timeline. Byron is prime minister, Darwin a member of the House of Lords, and Disraeli remains a seedy pulp writer throughout his days.

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 (taking their name from the sound made by paper cards moving through the brasswork of the steam-driven computers).

Gibson and Sterling range over a surprising variety of topics, including British Columbia's Burgess Shale and its fantastic array of fossil life forms; a debate between the uniformitarian and catastrophic schools of geology; the rise of communism in New York; Japanese robot women with springs made of whalebone; and fascinating "kinotrope" shows, the steam-computer-driven 19th-century equivalent of the big animated display boards found in today's sporting arenas. (In the world of The Difference Engine, poet John Keats has found his niche as a master programmer of kinotrope displays.)

The book's plot, of which there's surprisingly little, is muddled, but then this is not a story about getting from point A to point B. Rather, it's an immersion in a fascinating, wholly realized milieu.

The authors do indulge themselves at times. There's a drawn-out sex interlude that reads like a letter to some 19th century edition of Penthouse. And the final chapter is stuffed with random historical notes and ersatz press clippings, filling in background details that should more appropriately have been woven into the body of the text.

Still, the depth of imagining is magnificent. No one would call The Difference Engine a fun book, but it is a challenging work, and bound to generate much controversy.

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