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The Difference Engine by William Gibson

The Difference Engine (original 1990; edition 1996)

by William Gibson

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4,198671,190 (3.3)142
Title:The Difference Engine
Authors:William Gibson
Info:Gollancz (1996), Paperback, 384 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:science-fiction, alternate-history, READ

Work details

The Difference Engine by William Gibson (1990)

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A classic of this genre. A society propelled ahead of its historical frame by the endorsement of the Babbage technology. Good, shiny and oiled mechanical fun. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Apr 9, 2014 |
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, two major SciFi powerhouses, joined forces to produce The Difference Engine, a classic steampunk novel which was nominated for the 1990 British Science Fiction Award, the 1991 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1992 John W. Campbell Memorial Award and Prix Aurora Award. I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version which was produced in 2010 and read by the always-wonderful Simon Vance.

The Difference Engine takes place in a nearly unrecognizable Victorian England. The fundamental “difference” between this alternate history and the real one is that Charles Babbage succeeded in building his Difference Engine — the first analytical computer. Thus, the information age develops (along with the industrial revolution) in the social, political, and scientific milieu of the 19th century. This little historical event — the development of the steam-powered computer — has a vast impact on subsequent history: Meritocracy takes hold in England (you’ll recognize many of England’s new “savant” lords), the American states never unite, Karl Marx makes Manhattan a commune, Benjamin Disraeli becomes a trashy tabloid writer, and Japan begins to emerge as a world power with England’s help.

The idea of an earlier technological revolution affecting the course of history is fascinating. But the best part of The Difference Engine is the flash steampunk setting: full of gears and engines, pixilated billboards and slideshows, unreliable firearms, and lots of rum slang that’s right and fly.

The problem with The Difference Engine is the plot. It meanders slowly and strangely and is vaguely focused on a box of computer punch-cards which contain unknown important information. Several people are interested in the cards including Sybil, a courtesan who’s based on Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, mathematician Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron), a paleontologist nicknamed Leviathan Mallory, and the author Laurence Oliphant. Unfortunately, Mallory, who ends up being an Indiana Jones type of character, is the only one who’s interesting or likable. His segment of the novel has some exciting moments, but they seem only tangentially related to what comes before and after.

Most of the events seem random, obscure, and unconnected. Perhaps the book is not at all about plot, though, because the authors seem to be trying to make a clever association between Gödel’s mathematical theorems, chaos theory, punctuated equilibrium, and artificial intelligence. I’m not really sure... If this is truly their intention, it is too thickly veiled and probably imperceptible to many readers. The Matrix-like ending will leave most people scratching their heads and wondering why they spent so many hours reading such inaccessible stuff.

The Difference Engine is a smart and stylish concept novel that just doesn’t quite work. ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
The Difference Engine is not for everyone. I liked it, but, it was difficult to follow and in some instances seemed to go off on a tangent and I could not figure out what the point to dwelling on the scene was when there didn’t’ seem to be any significant relevance to the actual story line. There were three story lines which converged and became loosely connected throughout the book. The end however was a puzzle and I still am not sure I understand it and if there were clues in the story somewhere they were lost on me. I had to look up the book on wiki to understand the very end.
The story itself was interesting; however, the only thing that kept me reading was that I wanted to see how it all ended. So when the book ended in a strange and unforeseen way with no clue as to what it all meant I was left befuddled. The ending being strange and unforeseen is not necessarily a bad thing, however being left with no clue as to what just happened….I can only say I usually at least like to say I could understand what happened and can only relate it to being in one place say Chicago and then suddenly in a split second being in Boston with no clue as to how you got there. That is what the ending of this book is like. I can’t say it was a terrible read. I have started reading books that I end up just putting down and never picking up because they cause me to lose interest in some way. This book did not do that but I guess I would say it was a difficult read. ( )
  marysneedle | Feb 2, 2014 |
I loved the book, but Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine that he'd designed were things I already knew about in depth. There were parts that suggested the authors were new to collaboration (and I'm not sure either tried their hand at another one), and could have benefited from some trimming here and there, but it's an excellent picture of those times, and seemed nearly possible. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Dec 5, 2013 |
It took a lot of slogging to get through this one. I really enjoyed walking through the world and seeing where the changes were made into this alt history. Some of that was brilliant.

But a lot of it was just too long with no overarching storyline or character to follow that I cared about. In one way it reminds me of LOTR, in having so many characters, but in too wide a scope.

It's not that the writing is not good or anything like that, but I didn't enjoy the story and got tired of the whole thing long before it ended. I ususally like heavily textured worlds and stories, but this one was too much effort to read, much like Tolkien. ( )
  charlottebabb | Nov 22, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Gibsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sterling, Brucemain authorall editionsconfirmed
Miller, IanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Randazzo, TonyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Composite image, optically encoded by escort-craft of the trans-Channel airship Lord Brunel: aerial view of surburban Cherbourg, October 14th, 1905.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 055329461X, Mass Market Paperback)

A collaborative novel from the premier cyberpunk authors, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Part detective story, part historical thriller, The Difference Engine takes us not forward but back, to an imagined 1885: the Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven, cybernetic engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine, and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:55 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

"1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history--and the future."--The Difference Engine From the Paperback edition.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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