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The Difference Engine by William Gibson

The Difference Engine (original 1990; edition 1996)

by William Gibson

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4,349671,135 (3.31)148
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)

  1. 00
    The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod (CaptainPea)
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    Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (Cecilturtle)
    Cecilturtle: also set in late XIXth century with challenged scientific views.

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Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
I kept picking this book up and putting it down for 3 months. I enjoyed the setting and many elements of the stories, but the aggregate failed to hold my interest.

This book consists of three occasionally intertwining plots, of which I very much enjoyed one. The authors' descriptions and dialogue often fell flat. The world of The Difference Engine seemed drab and mundane to me, which I did not like. I think I would enjoy the story more as a film or TV show, with actors to make me care about the characters, dressed in elaborate costumes and surrounded by detailed sets. ( )
  wishanem | Jan 27, 2015 |
Overall, this book didn't make any sense at all. But in shorter sections, it was enjoyable. ( )
  lavaturtle | Dec 31, 2014 |
I have absolutely no idea how to rate this book. Parts of it are fast-paced and great. And parts are really slow and some are plain boring. Since I am not quite sure and I want to be fair, I'll leave it somewhere in the middle. I did kind of like it, after all.
The book is divided into five parts (iterations) and it takes place in a very dark XIX century London. Everything that happens to the characters in this story somehow ends up connected to a wooden box full of punched Engine cards, but not the ones which are usually used (Every citizen has a number and a file on him/her).
None of the characters are memorable. Each have a part of the book which tells his of her story. Sybil Gerard is in the first 'chapter', Edward Mallory got the two next which also introduced Laurence Oliphant, who got the last one.
The description of the book says this is a part detective story, part historical thriller. It is, but it is so much more, which is precisely the thing which drowned the story.
( )
  Irena. | Aug 26, 2014 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:19 -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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