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The Difference Engine
William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
Bantam Spectra Books, 429 pages

The Difference Engine
William Gibson
William Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina, spent his childhood in southwestern Virginia, and left the United States for Canada when he was 19. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife and their 2 children. His first novel, Neuromancer, won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 1984. He is also the author of Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Burning Chrome, and Virtual Light.

William Gibson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Idoru
SF Site Review: Idoru

Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling was born in 1954 in Brownsville, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin and worked for the Texas Legislative Council in Austin as a proofreader back in the late 70s-early 80s. He edited Mirrorshades, felt by many to be the definitive document of the cyberpunk movement. He writes a popular-science column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a literary-critical column for Science Fiction Eye. He has appeared on ABC's Nightline, BBC's The Late Show, CBC's Morningside, on MTV, and in Newsday, Omni, Whole Earth Review, Details, and Wired. He lives in Austin with his wife and daughter.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
SF Site Review: Distraction
SF Site Interview: Bruce Sterling

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Peter D. Tillman

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The Difference Engine explores a world in which Charles Babbage built a practical mechanical computer in the mid-19th century. Britain is going through both the Industrial and Information Revolutions simultaneously. The book combines Sterling's wildman inventiveness with Gibson's brooding, streetwise characters, both shoved back one and a half centuries into an obsessively-detailed and weirdly-transmogrified London of 1855.

Gibson and Sterling explore such topics as dinosaur physiology, Catastrophism vs. Uniformitarian geology, chaos theory, Victorian sexual practices, the Red Manhattan commune, treachery and graft in the Republic of Texas, British Imperial realpolitik, pre-industrial Japanese robotics, and mechanical-video technology.

The Difference Engine is less a novel than a series of interconnected stories and vignettes -- a combination that worked well for me, but has irritated others in reviews that I've read. The book reads more like "real" history than fiction -- loose ends abound, mysteries are unresolved, and characters disappear, just as in real life. If you like tidy, linear, tightly-plotted novels, The Difference Engine may not be for you.

Almost every character in the book was a real person, or is borrowed from a period novel (by Disraeli, himself a character -- a nice self-referential touch). The depth of research into Victoriana is awesome, and perhaps even a bit daunting. Fortunately, Eileen Gunn (Stable Strategies for Middle Management) has provided the "Difference Dictionary", an essential and spoiler-free reference, which you should have at hand when reading the book (it was included in the Japanese edition).

And serious students of The Difference Engine may enjoy Elisabeth Kraus' (of Graz University) academic essay "Gibson and Sterling's Alternative History: The Difference Engine as Radical Rewriting of Disraeli's Sybil" which in turn references "Cyperbunk [sic] Meets Charles Babbage" in the Journal of Victorian Studies -- the title of which Vincent Omniaveritas would have approved, I'm sure.

In a "real" alternate world, I'm not sure if history would have been greatly affected had Babbage succeeded -- his machine would have been thousands of times slower than even the first vacuum-tube computers (which were themselves cumbersome beasts -- ENIAC, built in 1946, weighed 30 tons). And marginally-reliable at best -- Babbage failed partly because his Difference Engine required technology beyond the capabilities of the time. In any case, the mid-19th century may not have been ripe for an Information Revolution. But I haven't done the research that Sterling & Gibson did -- Sterling in particular is an expert on 19th-century technology -- and their premise is certainly plausible enough for fiction. And the story is more than strong enough to overcome such niggling.

I read The Difference Engine when it was first published, liked it, and just finished re-reading it, with at least as much pleasure as on first reading. It's an oddly compelling book -- clearly not to everyone's taste, but The Difference Engine suited, and entertained me. I hope I've conveyed enough of the flavour (and problems) of the book for you to judge whether to give it a go.

Copyright © 1999 by Peter D. Tillman

Pete Tillman has been reading SF for better than 40 years now. He reviews SF -- and other books -- for Usenet, "Under the Covers", Infinity-Plus, Dark Planet, and SF Site. He's a mineral exploration geologist based in Arizona. More of his reviews are posted at www.silcom.com/~manatee/reviewer.html#tillman .


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