Book Review: The Difference Engine (1990)

difference_engineAll the best alternate history books I have ever read can be distilled to a simple question: what if? In this foundational Steampunk title, authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling ask, “what if the computer age came about in the 1800’s?”

The answer is that the political structures all over the world are deeply effected by Charles Babbage’s completion of his mechanical computers (called Analytical Engines) in 1824, and there are numerous references to a fragmented United States (including a communist Manhattan) as well as historical figures such as Lord Byron, Ada Byron (the “queen of engines”), and Laurence Oliphant in different roles than their historical counterparts. The English politicial system has been completely dismantled and a meritocracy put up in place of hereditary lordships. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Edward Mallory, a “savant” who discovers the first huge dinosaur bones, giving him the nickname “Leviathan Mallory.”

IMG_1349There were a lot of things I really liked about this book. The descriptive language was excellent and Ned is a great character on whose coattails to ride through the adventure. I loved the shift in politics in response to technology and the parallels between then and now when it comes to the power of information. The authors clearly put a lot of thought into both logically and imaginatively extending the repercussions of the rise of computer technology long before we experienced it in our timeline.

On the whole, the story felt a bit fragmented because there are three distinct characters that the reader must follow and the treatment is uneven. The first person you explore this world with is Sybil, and her story comes to an abrupt halt right as it gets really interesting. Then Mallory comes onto the scene and his story is great, but I couldn’t help but wonder where Sybil had gone to. Mallory’s tale comes to a head and he gets what he wants, but he is not actually the agent of change so even though there is a stand-off and big ‘splosions (whoo-hoo!) it felt sort of anticlimactic. Lastly, we trail Mallory’s one-time ally Laurence Oliphant for a little while on his political espionage. Each section was full of wonderful prose, but as a full story it ended up feeling kind of jerky and a bit too long.

Dif Engine No 2That being said, I think it is definitely worth a read for the wonderful writing and imagination of the authors. If you want to get the most out of this book, I would recommend a quick glance at the wikipedia article about it before you begin it. There is a great summary there of where and how the alternate history of the novel diverge from real events. I didn’t do this before I started reading and I spent a lot of the book wondering about fact and fiction.

Have you read this book? What did you think?


 

Phoebe Darqueling is a writer and artist who is inspired by Steampunk, and though she currently resides in California, her heart will always belong to Minnesota.

Like my reviews? Check out more cool stuff at my website!

Like my reviews? Check out more cool stuff at my website!

 

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