The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Vertigo

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This was a devastatingly disappointing read; I truly do not understand why it was nominated for a couple of awards or included in the SF Masterworks series except possibly because it surely must be good coming from the combined pens of two such acclaimed science fiction authors. However I can only say they both should have stuck with the edgy cyberpunk upon which their reputations had been made rather than trying to cash in on the then new wave of steampunk.

Dig deep enough and the reader might be able to find the weak and ineffectual plot buried beneath the all too clever Victoriana world building. I can’t really outline that plot because it would take no more than a few short sentences to completely describe plot and give the whole game away. Not that that would really matter as the vast majority of the book has absolutely nothing to do with the plot anyway. More time is spent describing sub plots that finally turn out to have no bearing on the ‘main’ plot whatsoever; digressions on the alternative American politics, input from the Japanese the whole central theme of the ‘stink’ (an exaggerated version of the London smog) suggest all kinds of intricate cross threading that eventually lead nowhere before finally some small paragraph appears that does actually have relevance to the plot.

Gibson and Sterling seem to have become so wrapped up in their steampunk world building that they entirely forgot that a book should possibly have some sort of plot rather than just intricately detailed settings for that plot. To give them some credit their alternative Victorian world building is certainly very atmospheric and crafted with loving attention to detail that suitably shows off how thorough their research must have been. But that’s the problem it mostly feels like it is only there to show off their talents. Lots of famous names are dropped throughout, oh so cleverly juxtaposed into different roles: Disraeli has become a hack writer and journalist, John Keats a ‘clacker’ (Victorian software engineer), Byron a politician and so on. One unnecessarily long and lascivious passage detailing a sexual encounter between one of the main protagonists and a dollymop (such impressive research!) contributed absolutely nothing to the story and nothing of relevance to the character building; its sole purpose seemed only to demonstrate the messed up and repressed sexual urges of Victorian society.

For me at least impressive world building is not sufficient to create a good book, especially when the vast majority of the world building bears no relevance to what little story the authors have bothered to include. And the less said about the rambling ending the better.

I say again, a huge disappointment, I really expected so much more from these two authors.


1/5 stars
 

J-Sun

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This was a devastatingly disappointing read; I truly do not understand why it was nominated for a couple of awards or included in the SF Masterworks series except possibly because it surely must be good coming from the combined pens of two such acclaimed science fiction authors.

Exactly.

However I can only say they both should have stuck with the edgy cyberpunk upon which their reputations had been made rather than trying to cash in on the then new wave of steampunk.

However I don't think this is accurate. They basically launched that wave, rather than cashed in, as far as I know/recall. [Edit: FWIW, the SFE lists "proto-steampunk" and "Blaylock, Jeter, Powers" and odds and ends and then, yeah, Sterling/Gibson. Perhaps it might be fair to say they were trying to anticipate "the next big thing" but there wasn't really anything to "cash in on" at that point.]

Still, yes, one of the most overrated books and, given the authors, one of the most disappointing. But zillions of people really really love it for some reason so there's that.
 
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RX-79G

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One of the few Gibson books I haven't re-read, largely because it doesn't have a complete plot. It feels like the first installment in a trilogy.

Specifically, there is a hinted at programming conspiracy involving some punchcards. A virus, an AI program? The book felt like there was a ton of behind the scenes machinations going on that are never truly revealed.

As someone who loves being in the book rather than getting to the climax, I was not as disappointed as most people are likely to be. The book is a work of genius in many ways, but not a fulfilling one.
 

Vertigo

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However I don't think this is accurate. They basically launched that wave, rather than cashed in, as far as I know/recall. [Edit: FWIW, the SFE lists "proto-steampunk" and "Blaylock, Jeter, Powers" and odds and ends and then, yeah, Sterling/Gibson. Perhaps it might be fair to say they were trying to anticipate "the next big thing" but there wasn't really anything to "cash in on" at that point.]

I made that comment based solely on an introduction in my ebook edition by one Graham Sleight which had this to say:

They both came to prominence as SF writers in the early 1980s: their earlier solo works were central texts of what became known as the cyberpunk movement.... Meanwhile, in another corner of the field, something entirely different was happening. James
Blaylock, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter were creating elaborate and exuberant fantasies of 19th-century England, of which the best-known was probably Powers’ The Anubis Gates (1984). Although there were antecedents for this kind of work – such as Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable novels of the 1970s – Blaylock, Powers and Jeter were friends and so perhaps thought of themselves as a self-conscious movement. In April 1987, Jeter wrote to the news-magazine Locus and said (perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek):

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps …

So a label was coined... The concerns ofsteampunk seemed to be far away from those of the cyberpunks, so it was a surprise when, in the late 80s, Gibson and Sterling announced that they were working on a collaborative novel set in Victorian England.
I am no scholar but it looked to me like they were actually jumping on a bandwagon they were later credited with starting. However I only have that one reference to base this on! :)
 

Vertigo

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One of the few Gibson books I haven't re-read, largely because it doesn't have a complete plot. It feels like the first installment in a trilogy.

Specifically, there is a hinted at programming conspiracy involving some punchcards. A virus, an AI program? The book felt like there was a ton of behind the scenes machinations going on that are never truly revealed.

As someone who loves being in the book rather than getting to the climax, I was not as disappointed as most people are likely to be. The book is a work of genius in many ways, but not a fulfilling one.
Yes, and there were all those cryptic comments from Oliphant about the "all seeing eye" towards the end of the book that never resolved into anything meaningful.
 

J-Sun

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I am no scholar but it looked to me like they were actually jumping on a bandwagon they were later credited with starting. However I only have that one reference to base this on! :)

No scholar here, either. I don't think many credit them with starting it - just helping to make it a big deal. I was only quibbling with the "cashing in" idea. Jeter was probably more known as a PKD guy and wasn't especially big. Blaylock was a general fantasy guy. Given that, I don't know how big he was, but not huge. Powers (also more of a fantasy guy) was the biggest, probably, but might not be as big today if things had gone differently. So I don't know that it would have caught on the way it did and, either way, it just wasn't a big cash cow at the time - hardly a "thing" at all. If anything, Sterling and Gibson were taking a commercial risk in doing something so off-brand and niche. It could have easily flopped (and, aside from negatively impacting their careers, I sorta wish it had). So, I mean, no, I don't think they created it but also don't think they cashed in or jumped on a bandwagon (very, tiny, rickety bandwagon at the time) - somewhere in between and the debate would be more on just how much they popularized it, I think.
 

RX-79G

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I haven't read all the different steampunk, but what Gibson and Sterling did is alternate history SF, and I don't know if that is really part of the steampunk aesthetic. For guys interested in computing, Babbage is a fascinating subject.
 

RX-79G

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Just to expand on this idea, a lot of fantasy comes from going back to the mythology of a previous era and embracing it as the natural history of the fantastic worldbuilding. LOTR borrows a reality from European myths of elves and goblins. Some of Steampunk embraces the mythology of Verne and Wells as its backbone and creates a fantasy from there. The Difference Engine ignores that mythos as a starting point and instead just asks a scientific what-if that expands from there: Everything that happens is the result of a single change in history - the accuracy and repeatability of 19th century machining methods.
 

Toby Frost

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I haven't read all the different steampunk, but what Gibson and Sterling did is alternate history SF, and I don't know if that is really part of the steampunk aesthetic.

I think the answer is that it can be both. Steampunk is definitely an aesthetic, as you say, as it covers science fiction (and alternate history), total fantasy, and outdated science fiction that might once have been considered possible but now clearly isn’t. By that definition I’d describe The Difference Engine as steampunk, since it contains steampunk things and has a steampunk look. But like punk or goth, there are endless arguments in steampunk about what’s in and what’s not. Personally, I think it isn’t a yes/no question, but a question of the degree of steampunk influence. The underground parts of Skyrim, for instance, have a strong steampunk feel, while the game on the whole clearly isn’t “steampunk”. But to be honest I don't think there's a consensus and I always wince slightly when two steampunk fans start arguing about what's in and what isn't because the discussion won't be over quickly!

I think I was a bit kind to the book when I reviewed it, perhaps because I’m not 100% sure what’s going on in parts of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, either. The Difference Engine is a mess, more like scraps of half a dozen novels than one coherent one, full of weird diversions. It shows impressive research but as a novel it isn’t great. It’s interesting that back then you could publish such a chaotic, experimental book.
 

RX-79G

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I agree, it is "steampunk". I guess what I was getting at was that Difference Engine wasn't necessarily inspired by the aesthetic, even if it fits it. The novel essentially erases the Victorian age, rather than embraces it.

I need to re-read the book: Take a look at this and tell me we aren't all missing a bunch:
The Difference Engine - Wikipedia


It is odd for Difference Engine to get credit for starting anything when books from the 1959 and 1971 had all the elements, as did the Wild, Wild West.
 
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Vertigo

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The Difference Engine is a mess, more like scraps of half a dozen novels than one coherent one, full of weird diversions. It shows impressive research but as a novel it isn’t great. It’s interesting that back then you could publish such a chaotic, experimental book.
I think that sums up my feelings exactly; there is certainly evidence of impressive research but, for me, as a story it fails.

Take a look at this and tell me we aren't all missing a bunch:
The Difference Engine - Wikipedia
I'm not sure we are missing anything because all the praise is for the world building and, in my opinion at least, a good book has to be more that just world building.
 

RX-79G

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I'm not sure we are missing anything because all the praise is for the world building and, in my opinion at least, a good book has to be more that just world building.
I didn't mean the praise, but the context and details that I certainly missed on first reading, like the Godel theorem and Sybil.
 

Vertigo

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Okay, well I must admit that I was fairly certain there were loads of details that I was missing but to be honest the book didn't really inspire me to try and figure them out. Initially I did do a fair bit of googling to help understand some of the subtleties but, to be frank, after a while I got fed up with what seemed to me like nothing more than a long list of all too clever insertions of neatly twisted bits of research. By the end I felt that the book was little more than a platform to show how clever the authors had been with doing their research and inserting it into the book. And most of it was pretty much irrelevant to the story. Harsh maybe, but that's how I was left feeling.
 

RX-79G

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I think it might be fair to say that it is a literary novel much more than an SF adventure.
 

RX-79G

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Hmm, maybe, but sadly I feel you are being too generous :)
It isn't a compliment as much as an observation: If the book was written as an experimental alternative re-write of a previous famous work, that is going to have to be of some value to the reader, as is the relative value of mathematical proofs and the effect of technology on history. Without some familiarity with the underlying material it becomes hard to even follow the value of dramatic events, which really takes the fun out of things.

Kind of like the types of classical music that ethnomusicologists appreciate, but the rest of us find boring.
 

Vertigo

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Yes but my point was that I'm not sure the intention to write a literary work or the presence of lots of clever literary references means that it inevitably is a literary work itself. To me this is absolutely not a literay work. I feel that neither the quality of writing nor the content nor the structure justify that description.
 

RX-79G

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Yes but my point was that I'm not sure the intention to write a literary work or the presence of lots of clever literary references means that it inevitably is a literary work itself. To me this is absolutely not a literay work. I feel that neither the quality of writing nor the content nor the structure justify that description.
Then we are simply disagreeing about what "literary work" means. I don't think it has anything to do with the resultant quality, just the intent. You seem to feel different. That's okay.

I liked the book, but didn't love it. So, for me, there may be reason to pursue it in depth. You hated it, so there is no reason to look for more. My comments about there being more than meets the eye were intended for everyone in the thread, not just you.
 

Rodders

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I read this some time ago and I was hoping for a lot more. I'd heard about how good Gibson and Sterling were, so I thought I'd give it a go. Disappointing is the right word.
 

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