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The Difference Engine by William Gibson
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The Difference Engine (original 1990; edition 1996)

by William Gibson

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4,636701,027 (3.3)155
Member:stevetempo
Title:The Difference Engine
Authors:William Gibson
Info:Gollancz (1996), Paperback, 384 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:***
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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» See also 155 mentions

English (65)  French (1)  Romanian (1)  All (67)
Showing 1-5 of 65 (next | show all)
I'm not sure how writers collaborate. More specifically, how Gibson and Sterling collaborate. Do they take turns writing chapters? If they do, I'll bet I can pick out which ones Gibson wrote; archaic jargon can add to a story...but only so far. Gibson's nonsense slang-usage in Neuormancer makes me think he likes to confuse readers. Intelligent readers want to know the meaning of the words used. Spending time inferring from the context or actually looking up the slang takes away from story enjoyment. Bizarre intercessions also take away from the enjoyment.

I've read comments that The Difference Engine is better on the second read. Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough to merit that re-read. I'm looking for good examples of written steampunk, as to date, it remains a visual attraction only for me. This book was on many lists as exemplary of the genre. If it is, the the genre needs a lot of help. ( )
  Razinha | May 23, 2017 |
Gibson & Sterling's The Difference Engine was about as I remembered it. Not the details: these I almost always forget, and here the authors truly shone in their inventiveness and world-making. Factual descriptions of Babbage's Analytical Engine (design, operation, sheer massive presence), geopolitical trends and alternative history, and yes, compulsive delight in sharing fashion and other period detail -- these were glorious fun and more rewarding than I allowed myself to expect. Overall, though, it was a solid but not spectacular book. Today I gather there are reams of steampunk stories; when first I read it, I don't think I knew of any other, and that was enough to recommend it.

The Difference Engine itself is a classic MacGuffin: crucial to the story, but mostly offstage. The plot focuses not so much on the Engines in use as about all the people running around them. A mysterious deck of punchcards provides the excuse to tour various parts of London, visit various members of different classes involved in cultural and political conflict. This set of punchcards amounts to a virus, perhaps the first of the age: no one central to the story is much aware of that, however, or even the possibility of it.

//

The final chapter an epistolary appendix: reports, articles, diary entries mostly focused on backstory not the plot. One revelation is that the punchcards sabotaged the Napolean not mechanically (jamming the gears) but algorithmically, preventing the engine from completing the operation, with some higher functions consequently dedicated endlessly to the program. It's not clear who did it. Was the Napolean targeted specifically, or were the cards intended for any engine? Was the virus a sincere effort to answer a legitimate question only the program failed, or was the virus created deliberately?

//

Some of my favourite parts mirror a subtheme of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in which familiar scientific discoveries are skewered good-naturedly. Gibson & Sterling have a character ridicule the concept of a map usefully identifying the source of a cholera outbreak; Disraeli is imagined not as PM but a journalist; Byron is PM and linked to radical politics. The origins of moving pictures are memorably joined with PowerPoint slides, and the innovation is rued as much in that world as in ours. ( )
2 vote elenchus | May 22, 2017 |
It feels as this book is the victim of collaboration. Some parts were interesting and well written while others were quite dull. The characters were also studies in contradiction never behaving in a manner I found consistent from one scene to the next. the more I read the less I cared for the story, the people in it or the book itself. ( )
  gaveedra | Jan 8, 2016 |
I hated this book. I had read Bruce Sterling previously in a college class and was not impressed. This book really felt like you could tell the difference between the authors in sections.

I distinctly remember one of the characters in the middle of the book doing things and it was like "okay, he's going to just go off and have sex now for no reason at all, and we'll have a discussion on condoms in this era, blah blah" Lot of meandering by the characters and plot from what I remember.

( )
  Schlyne | Nov 12, 2015 |
I feel obligated to like The Difference Engine a whole lot less than I did. People really dislike it, and the usual round of complaints makes a long, valid list. It's a dense 450 pages--most of it spends time on world-building chit-chat and important ideas rather than a coherent plot.

[N.B. This review includes images, and was formatted for my site, dendrobibliography -- located here.]

While the reader questions if the story's going anywhere, the world itself is fascinating, so complete in its details and sense of accuracy that it's darn hard to leave the polluted, industrial-analytical world. Difference Engine is cut into 3 chunks following the lives of Gerard, Mallory, and Oliphant on the trail of Gibson's usual macguffin. (Speaking of: The macguffin, a collection of programming punch-cards, has its explanation and importance buried so deeply that many readers never understand why they're important.) All 3 heroes only spend a fraction of their pages worrying about punch cards and social turmoil--mostly we follow paleontologist Edward Mallory in his day-to-day business as he bumbles into characters and conspiracies that are vaguely associated with the plot.

It's easy to get lost amid all the academic dialogue and miss the plot entirely. Much of the setting is left unexplained, and it benefits the reader to come prepared on popular 19th-century English savantry (history, programming, paleontology, geology, geography, etc.).

The greatest joys of Gibson & Sterling's novel often came from these 'in-the-know' moments, where the extent of the authors' research on so many subjects (and transference of that data into some quality sci-fi!) really boggles the mind; the lowest hiccups are when these same moments are too abstruse and unfamiliar, leaving the reader lost for 30 or more pages. The final 30-50 pages or so are the most abstruse among them for many, with important charges and plot twists regarding those sought-after punch cards hidden under--what? what was that? I didn't understand a word.

My background is in the sexy sciences of the 19th century, so I was right at home with Mallory & Co.'s dialogue on Victorian geography, geology, and paleontology. The academic climate is painted very accurately--petty bickering and all. I loved these sections. I loved the too-long discussions of uniformitarianism v. catastrophism; dinosaurian physiology; medical advancement re: cholera mapping; phrenology and eugenics leading a supposedly 'rational' scientific world; etc.

The Difference Engine's all atmosphere--a novel of intense, interesting ideas above all else--and the sense of quest structure is hit hard. Know that before stepping in; if a lovingly-crafted world of 19th-century intellectualism with a coating of sci-fi and Gibson's political intrigue sound like your thing, this is definitely worth checking out. ( )
5 vote alaskayo | Oct 18, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 65 (next | show all)
In de vorige eeuw werd door Charles Babbage een mechanische computer ontworpen, die echter bij gebrek aan technologische kennis en de juiste materialen niet gebouwd kon worden. Deze roman speelt zich af in een Engeland waar dat wel kon, met als gevolg dat al rond 1850 de maatschappij diepgaand veranderd is door computertechnologie. Ook andere zaken zijn in die wereld anders dan de onze: zo is de dichter Byron premier van Engeland geworden en de Verenigde Staten zijn nooit verenigd. De plot betreft een politieke intrige, draaiend om een stel computerponskaarten die een blauwdruk vormen voor een nieuwe generatie computers: niet langer mechanisch maar elektrisch. De auteurs zijn coryfeeën van de 'cyberpunk': science fiction die gaat over de toekomstige ontwikkelingen van de informatica. Hier hebben ze een roman geschreven zoals een 19e-eeuws auteur van cyberpunk die had kunnen schrijven. In dit opzicht is het een tour-de-force. Bovendien is het spannend en goed geschreven. Enige kennis van het 19e-eeuwse Engeland maakt de lezing van het boek nog aardiger, want het bevat talloze toespelingen op kunst en politiek uit de 19e eeuw.
added by karnoefel | editNBD / Biblion
 

» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Gibsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Sterling, Brucemain authorall editionsconfirmed
Miller, IanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Randazzo, TonyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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)

» see all 7 descriptions

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