I had wanted to read The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling for some time. It is widely regarded as one of the first novels to bear the description “steampunk” when it was published in 1990, and rightly so, as the book contains many of the themes and plot devices that have become common in steampunk literature.
The novel takes place in an England in which Charles Babbage has succeeded in building his mechanical computer—the “Difference Engine” of the title, although the machine more resembles his more advanced “Analytical Engine”. This event serves as the catalyst to careen the world off onto another timeline, and the authors imagine all the consequences and consequences of consequences that occur to change British society. For example, the anti-technology Tory party loses a national election, prompting the prime minister, Lord Wellington, to stage a coup to retain power. In the subsequent counter revolution, the Radical party comes into power and replaces the hereditary House of Lords with peerages awarded to savants for scientific merit.
Several main characters come into and out of the narrative in turn, their stories eventually entwining by the end of the novel: Sybil Gerard, a prostitute who aspires to control some strings of political power; Edward Mallory, a paleontologist who comes into possession of a possibly world-changing computer program; and Laurence Oliphant, an operative for the Government masquerading as a travel writer. A fourth character might be the Difference Engine itself, and how it has been incorporated so deeply into everyday life. The parallels with today’s ubiquitous networked technology are obvious.
Real historical characters come and go throughout the novel, some in roles similar to their actual histories, and some flung onto different—although related—paths by the alternative history of the story. While Ada Lovelace is still working on computer programming, she is now a respected expert, somehow having avoided an early death in this alternate history. Instead of poetry, Keats develops a type of computer-powered moving picture entertainment.
The one problem I had in reading the book was that the authors reveal important facts about this alterative world and its society only sparsely throughout the first section of the novel, leaving one wondering about certain aspects of the world and its society. Eventually, one catches up and a fully realized understanding of this world in which steam-powered mechanical computers represent power and influence is acquired. I also found different sections of the book more or less engaging than others. Whether this is a function of being written by two authors, I do not know.
I enjoyed reading The Difference Engine, although I did find it difficult to follow at times. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in steampunk literature, given that it is one of the founding examples of the genre. The imaginative world and its inventive technology devised by the authors are distilled essence of steampunk, and the social commentary of a world controlled by those who possess the computers is both timely and thought-provoking.