The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson Review

I would recommend a quick glance at the wikipedia article about this book before you begin it. There is a great summary there of where and how the alternate telling diverges from real events. I didn’t do this before I started reading, and I spent a lot of the book wondering about fact and fiction.

About the Book

Trial portion of the Difference Engine No. 1, completed 1832
Trial portion of the Difference Engine No. 1, completed 1832

In short, it tells the tale of the trajectory of the world if the computer age came in the 1800’s. The political structures all over the world are deeply effected by Charles Babbage’s completion of his mechanical computers (called Analytical Engines) in 1824. There are numerous references to a fragmented United States (including a communist Manhattan) as well as historical figures such as Lord Byron, Ada Byron (the “queen of engines”), and Laurence Oliphant in different roles. The English politicial system has been completely dismantled and a meritocracy put up in place of hereditary lordships. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Edward Mallory, a “savant” who discovers the first huge dinosaur bones. This gains him the nickname, “Leviathan Mallory.”

The history-altering engine require special punch cards to operate. A box of cards full of sensitive information suddenly surface, which sets of a domino effect and pulls together the three narratives.

 

What I thought of The Difference Engine

Babbage later designed a simpler difference engine that was not built until the 20th century, on display at the Computer History Museum
Babbage later designed a simpler difference engine that was not built until the 20th century, on display at the Computer History Museum

I really liked a lot about this book. The descriptive language was excellent and Ned is a great character on whose coattails to ride through the adventure. I loved the shift in politics in response to technology. The parallels between then and now when it comes to the power of information. The authors clearly put a lot of thought into both logically and imaginatively extending the repercussions of the rise of computer technology.

On the whole, the story felt fragmented. The story centers on three distinct characters and treatment is uneven. The first person you explore this world with is Sybil, and her story comes to an abrupt halt right as it gets really interesting. Then Mallory comes onto the scene and his story is great. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder where Sybil had gone to.

Mallory’s tale comes to a head and he gets what he wants. Interestingly, he is not responsible for his change  of circumstances. So, even though there is a stand-off and big ‘splosions (whoo-hoo!) it felt sort of anticlimactic at.

Lastly, we trail Mallory’s one-time ally Laurence Oliphant for a little while on his political espionage. Each section was full of wonderful prose, but as a full story it ended up feeling kind of jerky and a bit too long. At the same time, it failed to deliver a really moving climax.

That being said, I think it is definitely worth a read for the wonderful writing and imagination of the authors.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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