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The Difference Engine (1990)

by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5,517821,545 (3.3)168
1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine, and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. Three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with the future: Sybil Gerard--fallen woman, politician's tart, daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward "Leviathan" Mallory--explorer and paleontologist; Laurence Oliphant--diplomat, mystic, and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for. Part detective story, part historical thriller, The Difference Engine took the science fiction community by storm when it was first published more than twenty years ago. Provocative, compelling, and intensely imagined, this novel is poised to impress a whole new generation.… (more)
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» See also 168 mentions

English (78)  French (1)  Romanian (1)  Italian (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (82)
Showing 1-5 of 78 (next | show all)
Victoriana w/computers, but not many women. And, the plot is a mess, but does anyone read Gibson for his plots? ( )
  linepainter | Aug 15, 2021 |
So I'm teaching a course on Steampunk and Philosophy this coming spring semester (team-teaching, to be more precise), and I'm admittedly not an expert in Steampunk literature. I am, however, somewhat more expert in science fiction as literature, thus my involvement. I thought it would be a good idea to reread this Gibson novel I'd read but didn't remember well. I might as well have been reading it for the first time, I remembered so little of it.

What a gobsmackingly good book, this. Like his other novels, Gibson is not always easy to read, and not in the deceptive complexity I've come to expect from Le Guin or even the deceptively not-simple prose of Dick. He can be dense, and is here. But it is so worth it. Really, it's not the love of polysyllabic language that Neal Stephenson suffers from on occasion, either, but something else. In Difference Engine, it's the choice of alternative history as his SF form, his fragmented narrative and shifting perspectives, his decision to have not only the setting in Victorian England but also the narration reflect certain sensibilities. I don't know. It's late for me, and I've only just finished. It will hopefully make more sense later before I have to talk about it with younguns. There were times when I asked myself "what the hell is going on here," only to giggle later as I asked again, "what the hell is going on here, indeed!" Honestly, by the time I finished the book (an hour ago), I was enjoying the ambiguities so much I almost didn't want the final collection of artifacts that give more context to the history the narrative exists in. Almost.

It all pays off, in the way that alt histories often do for me. I of course thought of The Man in the High Castle, although the discomfort of the "true" mixed with the fiction of the narrative is really the only point of comparison so far. Maybe more will come later, and I certainly will be thinking on this point in the future, but both Dick and Gibson (yes, I know there is a co-author, but honestly the only voice I heard was Gibson's (no, I haven't read anything else by the other guy (yes, I know that's not fair (no, I don't care (yes, right now I'm just playing around with parentheses))))) make good use of this reader's discombobulation. Dick deals more with the metaphysical aspects of authenticity and reality, though, and Gibson seems more interested in the traditional "what-if" aspect of both alt-history and SF generally. Ok, I'm getting off track here.

Regardless, this book is very much in keeping with Gibson's other writing, his other persistent themes and subject matter-- the latter of which is fascinating given the technological differences present. I very much enjoyed it, and very much look forward to it's role in my coming class. ( )
  allan.nail | Jul 11, 2021 |
Around the time this book was published and the term “Steam Punk” was being bandied about, and people were modding computers with Victorian facades, a university friend of mine mentioned the words to me, “The difference engine”. I never read the book but I used the term freely over the years to express the À rebours aesthetic taking place with new technologies. The concept overall, quite interesting, albeit twenty years later, I actually got round to reading the book. I couldn’t have felt flatter. It felt like Gibson and Sterling had over-researched the era and decided to throw in as much of this research as possible in order to either authenticate the world within or just let the reader know they had done their homework.

Consistency was lost through-out. Even some of the main character dialogue shifted from cockney brogue to received pronunciation without seemingly intending to do so, as if the two authors were getting muddled. At points, as if trapped in a corner, the authors would spring a further development to keep the plot moving, although this at times felt jarring and inconclusive.

There were parts in which I can honestly say I was deeply drawn into the narrative (author having a good day) and other parts of which the diplomatic intrigue dragged on unbearably (author needing to meet a word-count deadline). In some respects, the underlying story arc was no more than a Western set in a speculative alternative history and then moments would arrive where I was expecting Sherlock Holmes to crop up. The ending literally a Spaghetti Western shootout.

All the main characters seemed to have an almost superhuman endurance, especially Mallory, who at times, I wondered if he ever rested. The catastrophe was well deployed but the underlying alternative technology was almost an aside to the alternative political and scientific background.

The addendum highly unnecessary and almost seemed like the authors wanted to include their backstory notes to fill any holes the narrative might have had throughout. Overall, an innovative concept poorly executed with decent writing peppered by moments of superb writing. For me it is not ranked as a remarkably influential book by nature of its story as a whole, but you will find parts that, if had been condensed into a shorter book, and certain concepts teased out to weave those parts together, would have made a far greater impact ... at least to me. ( )
  RupertOwen | Apr 27, 2021 |
After having done a total 180 on Gibson and reading everything else he's written, I thought it was only fair to give The Difference Engine a second chance. It's about as good as I remember - there are glimmers of something really great here and there (I love every scene where characters go shopping in this book), but basically none of the characters feel really likable or memorable, and most of the book is taken up with events that don't really feel like they mattered by the end. Easily my least favorite thing that good ol' WG has done. (I haven't read enough Bruce Sterling to form a judgment on him) ( )
  skolastic | Feb 2, 2021 |
This book is even better than I had realised as I started reading it - I feel the need to go back and re-read it to fully appreciate it.
The concept is an "alternative history" in which Babbage and his "difference engine" had successfully initiated a technology era in Victorian era England - leading to an alternate history of the period. Essentially it is a cross between sci-fi, fantasy and history.
There is much to enjoy if you know a little history of politics, science and literature of the era. Many familiar names, some in different roles - Disraeli is a full-time writer, Byron is PM. There are also many creative touches - for example, with plays on modern words where the card- and mechanical-based tech types are "clackers" instead of hackers, and so on.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole, and on the many different levels embedded in it. The characters are interesting and believable, the alternative history is thought provoking, and the science/technology is interesting.
There is one section where the plot development becomes quite florid, but I was happy to go along for the ride.
Great stuff! ( )
  mbmackay | Sep 18, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 78 (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
Gibson, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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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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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine, and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. Three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with the future: Sybil Gerard--fallen woman, politician's tart, daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward "Leviathan" Mallory--explorer and paleontologist; Laurence Oliphant--diplomat, mystic, and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for. Part detective story, part historical thriller, The Difference Engine took the science fiction community by storm when it was first published more than twenty years ago. Provocative, compelling, and intensely imagined, this novel is poised to impress a whole new generation.

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