The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
The Difference Engine - A Review

There is a lot of argument about what was the first steampunk novel, but it is pretty much unanimously agreed that The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990) is one of the classics of the genre. The underlying premise is that, around 1830, mathematician Charles Babbage was able to perfect his designs for an analytical engine, a sort of primitive computer (in real life, Babbage did not get the funding he required, and his design was never built). The computer age has arrived a hundred years earlier than it really did, and the alternate British Empire, after revolutions and social upheaval, is vastly powerful.

The plot of The Difference Engine hinges around a conspiracy involving Lady Ada Byron (often called Ada Lovelace, and said by some to be one of the first computer programmers) and a set of punch-cards called the Modus, which seems to contain a programme that will enable winning bets to be placed by gamblers. One way or another, the battle to control the Modus touches four key players: Sybil Gerrard, the “ruined” daughter of a radical politician; Laurence Oliphant, a real-world diplomat and, at least in the Difference Engine world, a spy; Edward Mallory, a noted palaeontologist; and an unnamed collector of photographic data, which appears to be a computer and may well be self-aware.

That’s about as good an account of the plot as I can manage. It is somewhat loose, and isn’t followed with much determination by the authors. As a result, The Difference Engine is a meandering wallow more than a roller-coaster ride, engrossing rather than thrilling. Asides are everywhere: the book references Karl Marx, Japanese automata, the early career of Benjamin Disraeli, the gangs of New York, arguments about creationism and the dinosaurs and about a million other things. It is a pretty self-indulgent book: at one point, the story stops for a rather grotty ten-page sex scene. Yet when the authors want, it's pretty exciting. In particular, a showdown between Mallory, his brothers and an anarchist gang is great.

Also, this isn’t the steampunk that you might be expecting. A lot of the clichés of the genre aren’t here: no goggles, no airships, no mad scientists and not much in the way of swashbuckling adventure. In fact, Gibson and Sterling’s world is – for steampunk – pretty low-tech (appropriately, although the computer has been invented, the television screen hasn’t). The upper classes have altered enormously, but for the people at the bottom of the heap, the urchins, thieves and thugs who’d appear in a Dickens novel, not a lot has changed. You may pay for your laudanum with a National Credit card instead of a handful of coins, but Bill Sykes will be using the same billy-club to steal it from you.

Furthermore, this is science fiction (alternate history, to be precise) rather than fantasy. The clearly impossible things that you might see in more recent steampunk – Frankenstein’s monster, air krakens, and that handy cure-all, the aether – are not here. Nor are martians, space-ships and the like. All the changes can really be traced back to the idea of the working computer arriving a century too early. And, of course, it’s too early for a lot of the famous steampunk “names” to have appeared on the scene: Wells and Conan Doyle, and hence Moreau and Holmes, are several decades away from the Difference Engine world, if they would end up appearing in it at all.

The Difference Engine is a deeper, stodgier book than much modern steampunk. At points, it becomes a sort of sourcebook for its world, a set of vignettes without a clear story, and if the setting doesn’t grip you enough, you may well not enjoy it. But the intricacy of the Difference Engine world is, I think, a great plus. It’s just a shame that all that research cannot quite compensate for the weakness of the plot.

At the end of the day, would I recommend this book? Definitely. Just be aware that it’s an intriguing read, but not a light one.