The Difference Engine (1990) is an alternate-reality Steampunk novel; a classic that was ahead of its time, and a seminal tome in the genre. It investigates what would have occurred if Charles Babbage had succeeded in creating a working mechanical computer in the mid-19th century; in the confines of the novel, the result is that Britain launches into the Industrial and Information Revolutions at the same time.
As I began my journey through the book I had doubts that Babbage’s computer would have been effective enough for the blossoming of the Information Age — his computer would have been incredibly slow, and certainly not robust enough to be of practical use — but the story was intriguing enough to warrant suspension of disbelief, and the authors were clever enough to forgo any explanation of how the invention was perfected: it is presented as a fait accompli.
The novel is predominately populated with historical individuals and characters from Sybil, or The Two Nations, a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, who also appears as a character in The Difference Engine. Disraeli’s novel depicts the appalling life of the working-class in the mid-19th century. The authors’ research is inspiring, but at times the novel reads like a history book; fascinating, but a bit of a slog. The book is idea driven, and I prefer a character driven story. I recommend the on-line “Difference Dictionary” (provided by Eileen Gunn), which is a useful reference while reading the novel. If you’re really curious, you might also like to peruse an essay by Elisabeth Kraus: “Gibson and Sterling’s Alternative History: The Difference Engine as Radical Rewriting of Disraeli’s Sybil”
The novel is presented in a series of episodes, with three main characters: Sybil Gerard, a prostitute and daughter of a revolutionary Luddite; Edward Mallory, an adventurous paleontologist; and Laurence Oliphant, a journalist/spy. Each of the main characters is interesting; but, as a reader, I was never fully engaged with any of them (I found some of the Mallory sections protracted and somewhat tedious). Each received an interesting initial character sketch, but they weren’t plumbed to a depth sufficient for an emotional attachment; interestingly, this may have been the authors’ intent.
The ending made the journey worthwhile and shed some light on why the book’s writing style was used. I don’t think I will ever re-read the book; but, after knowing who the narrator is, a second reading might be more enlightening. I won’t reveal the narrator, although I don’t think it would ruin the story (I think it would actually add to the story), I’ll just point out that the book isn’t divided into chapters, but into six Iterations (from Merriam-Webster.com: a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result and/or the repetition of a sequence of computer instructions a specified number of times or until a condition is met). There is also a final section, a Modus, and an interesting Afterward by the authors.
The Difference Engine is a well researched, fascinating book, but there are many sections — particularly in the middle — I struggled through. I’m glad I persevered through to the end, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book. Some, no doubt, will adore it, but the novel won’t appeal to everyone’s taste.