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The Difference Engine (Spectra Special…

The Difference Engine (Spectra Special Editions) (original 1990; edition 1992)

by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (Contributor)

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4,948721,428 (3.3)159
The fierce summer heat and pollution have driven the ruling class out of London and the resulting anarchy allows technology-hating Luddites to challenge the intellectual elite. A set of perforated punch cards comes into the hands of the daughter of an executed Luddite leader, who sets out to keep them safe and discover what secrets they contain.… (more)
Title:The Difference Engine (Spectra Special Editions)
Authors:William Gibson
Other authors:Bruce Sterling (Contributor)
Info:Spectra (1992), Mass Market Paperback, 448 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Difference Engine by William Gibson (1990)

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Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
This is one (of presumably many) SF gems I missed. I’m not a big fan of cyberpunk but when I heard about steampunk I was intrigued. Quite likely I was affected by my SF diet as a YA (which was mostly classics, “the future that will never be”, retrofuturism) and Fallout RPG (first two from the 90s). However, all steampunk novels I picked over the years were just so-so, therefore I was disappointed.
This book was part of my reading group list for February. And this is really steamPUNK, not some urban fantasy set in the Age of Steam, it has clear roots in cyberpunk even if it was published decades (!) before the word steampunk became ubiquitous.
The story takes us to 1855, less than three decades after Byron and Babbage led the Radical party that set merit lordship in the Great Britain and made it the bulwark of progress. But great progress isn’t free: new mechanical computers are used to create soft-gloves totalitarian state, where enemies of the state just vanish. The story is linked with potentially powerful object – a case with set of coding cards (i.e. a program) of unknown but potentially great importance.
When I started the novel it seemed a bit slow, a bit Victorian and I planned to give it 4 stars, but the ending upped my esteem of it.
( )
1 vote Oleksandr_Zholud | Jan 9, 2019 |
Hum… I guess it is a good thing that I was already a fan of steampunk as a genre before reading this one, because if not, this would have turned me off the genre. Don’t get me wrong, the authors have created quite an interesting alternate reality of 1850s Victorian times filled with Victorian techno (early computer (punch card) technology) and a fair number of significant historical figures of the scientific community. The attention to detail is amazing, but can be lost on readers not already well versed in the Victorian era. Billed as part detective story, part historical thriller, it would probably help readers to have some prior knowledge of Charles Babbage, Ada Byron and their work on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, as that work and Ada are rather important parts to this story. My knowledge is fleeting at best so that may have hindered my enjoyment of the story.

I understand this story was a collaboration of sorts between the two authors, which might explain why, while some sections were well written, the overall structure seemed a bit off/clunky. As for it being billed as a historical thriller, I found the action parts to be sparse. They seemed to just blend into the descriptive writing. The detective story also struggles. I get that some important punch cards for the Engine were stolen but I never found out what made these cards so important (an unsolved mystery in itself). The overall effect for me is I found myself bored while reading this one. It would have probably appealed to me more if I had done my own research before diving into the story. As I mentioned above, good thing this was not my first experience with steampunk, or I probably would have turned my back on the genre. ( )
1 vote lkernagh | Dec 18, 2018 |
It has been many years since I last read anything by William Gibson. I guess I had always associated him with the cyberpunk field which he virtually initiated. This book is a dramatic departure from that although there are certain themes in common. At any rate, I found this book much more readable than his other fiction. Maybe that's the influence of his co-writer, Bruce Sterling. I found this great quote in which Gibson mentioned his first meeting with Sterling:
One of the things that made me like Bruce Sterling immediately when first I met him, back in 1991. We shook hands and he said "We’ve got a great job ! We got to be charlatans and we’re paid for it. We make this shit up and people believe it."

The main difference between this book and Gibson's other work is that it is set in 1855 but it is an 1855 that never existed. In this alternate universe, Charles Babbage was successful in constructing his mechanical computers (called difference engines) and it completely revolutionized Britain. As a result, Britain was the most important country on earth. The American States never managed to coalesce into a unified country so the USA was restricted to the north east, Texas and California were independent republics and slavery still exists in the Confederate States. Manhattan has become a commune and there are many refugees from Manhattan and other parts of America in Britain. The House of Lords in Britain is the governing body but lordships are not inherited they are earned by people who are have achieved success in science. There are familiar names in government such as Lord Byron, who is the Prime Minister, but he came to prominence not because of his poetry but because of his knowledge of mathematics.

The book centres around a series of punch cards which travel from one hand to another with usually drastic results for the person involved. People are willing to kill for them although not many people seem to know what their purpose is. Sybil Gerrard, daughter of a notorious Luddite, is introduced to them by her lover who is the personal aide to General Sam Houston. Sybil and her lover post them to France but before they can follow them the lover is killed and Houston is badly wounded. Sybil manages to escape taking the diamonds Houston had secreted in his cane and she does go to France. Her part in the mystery is not made clear until the very end. Then Edward Mallory, recently returned from the Americas where he made the first discovery of dinosaur bones, is handed the box of cards by Ada Byron, daughter of the Prime Minister and a mathematical genius. Ada is a gambler who is in debt to some very shady characters who want to get the cards but Mallory manages to hide them. London, in the summer of 1855, is a very unpleasant place to be. The Great Stink, probably a result of the industrial work being done, is the worst kind of pollution with excessive temperatures, smog and untreated waste combined. Anyone who can flees London for the countryside and the rabble left behind smash and burn with abandon. Mallory goes up against one of the ringleaders with his brothers and a policeman because this ringleader is trying to force him to give up the cards by libelling him and his family. Mallory has cleverly hidden the cards but writes to Ada to tell her where they are. Ada, trying to get free of her debts, discloses the location to her debtors who make a daring raid to get them but are killed while leaving the scene. The cards then fall into the hands of Laurence Oliphant, a journalist/spy who has popped up before in the story. Oliphant has no idea what to do with them and he hands them off to John Keats who is a genius at computer programming.

So, what do the cards do? Ah, that's the mystery and I'll leave you to find it out. Read carefully though as some reviews I read didn't seem to catch it. ( )
1 vote gypsysmom | Aug 9, 2017 |
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 story. Today I gather there are reams of steampunk tales; when first I read this novel, 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 |
Showing 1-5 of 67 (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 (7 possible)

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