The Difference Engine

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

William Gibson is the highly acclaimed author of the cyberpunk space trilogy that began with NEUROMANCER (1984) and ended with MONA LISA OVERDRIVE (1988). Bruce Sterling received rave reviews for ISLANDS IN THE NET, his 1988 cyberpunk novel. In THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, the two team up to produce something almost new, a high-tech, alternative historical thriller. Alternative pasts as sources of fantasy and science fiction are not new; a classic example is J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS. In recent years, Orson Scott Card has renewed this area of speculative fiction with the Tales of Alvin Maker series, and Jack Womack dipped into it with TERRAPLANE.

Gibson and Sterling imagine the Victorian era with one key difference. In actuality, nineteenth century industrial technology was unable to produce large-scale models of the mechanical calculating machine that Charles Babbage (1792-1871) invented. In this novel, he succeeds in about 1820. As a result, history changes in many ways. Some of these changes, such as the fates of John Keats and Lord Byron, are inexplicable. Among those that clearly follow this invention are a great increase in British power that leads to the collapse of the American Union as a major rival, the reorganization of England into a meritocracy in which various Royal Societies hold sway, the more rapid deterioration of the environment, and an accelerated movement toward elements of cultural change that in actuality came to the fore only in the twentieth century.

Within this vividly realized world, the authors present a multileveled tale of political intrigue, with English stability threatened from one side by antitechnology revolutionaries and from the other by a would-be dictator who tries to grasp the tremendous, new powers of the high-tech police information bureau.

Originally published in England, this is a rich and fascinating book, and it is fun to read as well.

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Difference Engine’s five iterations recall the repetition of subroutines in a computer program. They provide different perspectives on a sequence of events in the year 1855. Charles Babbage has successfully built his difference engine, bringing into being a steam-based information technology. Because the difference engine, a type of computer, historically was not completed, this event becomes the pivot of the alternate history. The plot concerns a set of punch cards created by Ada Byron as a gambling system.

In Iteration One, an aged Sybil Gerard, living in Cherbourg in 1905, remembers January 15, 1855, and her relationship with a doomed opportunist-revolutionary, Mick Radley. Sybil had become a prostitute because her father was hanged as a revolutionary. Her identity is in the police “engines,” preventing her from following another profession. Mick involves her in attempts to get a computer program from the deposed president of Texas, Sam Houston, in his London hotel room. Sybil witnesses an attack on Houston that results in Mick’s death and sends her to France.

Iteration Two introduces Edward Mallory, a famous paleontologist who discovered the “great land leviathan,” or a Brontosaurus, while on a dig in the wilds of Wyoming. On Derby Day, on which both horses and steam-driven vehicles are raced in different heats, he has two momentous experiences. He assists Ada Byron, daughter of the famous Lord Byron who is...

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(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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