“The book does prominently feature three of the foundational touchstones of all things steampunk: giant airships, brass computers, and kinky feminine underwear.” ~ Bruce Sterling, Afterword, The Difference Engine
When I first delved into The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, I had no previous experience reading the work of either author. All I knew was that it was a classic and had something to do with steampunk. However, I was soon swept away by the characters and their fantastic world of invention and intrigue.
In Britain, intellectual savants – backed by scientific achievement instead of breeding – have become the new aristocracy. Years before the story takes place, political Luddites opposed new technologies, while the Industrial Radical Party embraced the new analytical machines with all their applications. The majority of the stories take place during this new British scientific revolution – spurred by Charles Babbage’s invention of the Difference Engine , an invention that in this reality he never actually built.
With the advent of steam-driven analytical engines, all aspects of people’s lives are effected – from the punch cards used for their identification to the type of music they listen to. In the background, American politics broil in the fragmented States, including Communist Manhattan and the Republic of Texas. Thieves and gamblers play in the political arena.
The world of The Difference Engine does not lack for action or political tension. The alternative background – along with cryptic references to the All-Seeing Eye – set against very real historical events kept me turning the page as well as taking detours to brush up on my British history. One question dominated the entire narrative; namely, What would have happened if Babbage had successfully created his machine?
In this alternative reality, background checks are done via punch cards and people are known by their identity numbers. In this world, the government controls the Engine, and the Engine determines – as well as reflects – a person’s background. Many fictional and historical characters play upon this setting, including the meritocrat Edward “Leviathan” Mallory – fictional discoverer of the Brontosaurus, Sybil Gerard – daughter of an executed Luddite, and Laurence Oliphant – travel author and British agent.
Figuring prominently in all this is Lady Ada Byron, daughter of Lord Byron as well as collaborator on the first Engine – earning her the title ‘Queen of Engines.’ But despite the reverence shown her, intrigue brews in Lady Ada’s background, and the cost may be more than one life.
Other historical figures live silently behind the scenes, while the ideals and imperfections of the Age of the Engine are laid bare to the reader. Sex, mystery, violence, murder, chivalry, and debauchery all feature prominently throughout the novel.
The treatment of women in this alternate history is one of the most interesting things about the story. Men treat women as either whores or ladies – with nothing in-between. Indeed, one character makes disparaging remarks about how ladies have become less attractive now that they endeavor to become more like men – referring to women who educate themselves in the latest technologies. Yet still, Lady Ada manages to embrace this double standard; she is both adored by men for her intellect while hated by women for abusing her femininity.
The double standard may also have to do with the class-ism of the period. Meritocrats make a compelling replacement for the aristocrats, since their status comes from their achievements rather than breeding. Thus Lady Ada holds the title of Lady, although she is revered as the ‘Queen of Engines’ among the meritocrats.
Since I had no prior knowledge of the book’s plot, I found myself a bit lost as the novel’s focus switched from character to character. Just as I was becoming attached to one, the entire story would shift – for no apparent reason – to someone else. This happened several times, and while I was intrigued by all three protagonists, the plot lost considerable momentum with each switch. Also, the story loses clarity, though many of the threads woven by the different storylines converge in the end.
For anyone interested in one of the classics of Steampunk, I would recommend this novel as an interesting history lesson – full of suspense and steam-powered computers. However, I myself found the ending enigmatic, and would suggest the read with the caveat of getting the 20th Anniversary Edition. The Afterword should clear up any plot points you may have missed along the way, and it’s an interesting lesson in how long-distance collaborative writing was done twenty years ago.