Title: The Difference Engine
Author: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling
Genre: Steampunk, Science Fiction, Alternate History
Rating: 5.5/5 – It was that brilliant!
Summary: The Difference Engine examines an alternate history in which Charles Babbage builds a ‘difference engine,’ a forerunner of modern computers that runs on steam (it is composed of gears and utilizes punch cards). World history diverges; engines become common changing Victorian England significantly as the empire retains world power. This technological advance gives England an edge during the industrial revolution, in military campaigns, and in greater citizen control through data (the government Eye watches). At the same time, the Civil War fractured United States into multiple territories diluting its power. This alternate reality uses key historical figures, which may or may not lead very different lives than they had in our reality. And of course with power comes politics, as our characters and alternate historical figures get caught up in intrigue the plot, as they say, thickens.
Review: An essay by Catherynne M. Valente entitled “Blowing Off Steam” invites Steampunks to focus on the steam and punk (and not just get lost in some romanticized version of the Victorian era); to relish in the grittiness, nastiness, death, and terror that accompanied steam technology and the industrial revolution reaching deep for the rebellion inherent in the punk. This novel is the very definition of Steampunk, encompassing both of the concepts beautifully in a terrifying way.
Gibson and Sterling (awesomeness) came together to compose a wonderfully intelligent read (I had to research many historical figures and events to make sense of the story and am still a bit muddled). I have read the mixed reviews, understand the complaints that many had, but to me what many saw as drawbacks were actually what I absolutely loved about it.
The story develops slowly, the plot is more of a patchwork of events that needs to be taken out of time for us, readers, to analyze and reassemble ourselves (a sort of DIY very much in the spirit of Steampunk). The whole novel has a realistic feel, if Babbage had developed his difference engine then maybe that could have been our timeline, our reality. That realism leads to stray ends and plot tangents that remain unanswered. Realism is also enhanced through the highly detailed and gorgeously poetic descriptions that will transport you into this strange yet familiar world (which sometimes feels disconcerting, as if you’re trying to grasp something familiar but it’s different enough to elude you). The realism of the industrial revolution was presented as raw, gritty, and dirty; the technology portrayed as necessary and useful but having cruel negative effects including human misuse (such are London’s “the Stink” or the constant government Eye watching).
The story is told through three individuals. The first part is shown through the eyes of Sybil Gerard (ruined daughter of a deceased Luddie leader), the second through Edward “Leviathan” Mallory (adventurer and paleontologist), and the third through Laurence Oliphant (journalist in daylight, government spy behind closed doors). They may barely know each other or of each other but through them we get a glimpse a larger picture. They aren’t wholly aware of how events they are a part of fit together, or even that they have greater meaning past their current circumstances.
I must admit that Dr. Mallory is my favorite (his story gets a significantly larger amount of coverage in the novel); an adventurer scientist braving the wilds and natives of Wyoming finds the bones of a leviathan, a dinosaur. Back home in England, he gets unknowingly mixed up in a political plot that leaves his life in danger (not that he shies away from a fight, I’ll go as far as to say he actually enjoys them in a morbid sort of way). This is my favorite Steampunk archetype (an Indiana Jones type) but Mallory is more than just that, he’s also quirky, flawed, and a product of his environment.
The ending is unsatisfactory; it is vague and, well, brilliant in that it leaves us with room to imagine and pursue our own ideas (while at least tying up some lose ends). I am sure I missed much during my first reading and will have to add this one to the re-read pile. I love books that I can pick up over and over again to find something new; a deeper understanding, inspiration, or ideas. In the end, to me, this is a test that distinguishes phenomenal/epic/brilliant books from the great ones. And this novel is phenomenal, epic, and brilliant!