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The Difference Engine
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Patrick Hudson

The Difference Engine was first published in 1990, just as cyberpunk hit the mainstream and SF had one of its brief moments in the sun. The Internet was beginning to make the news, the web was just around the corner, computers were slowly infiltrating all corners of business and government, the state was shrinking, corporate power growing and all things Japanese were considered the sin qua non of futuristic chic. The Gollancz paperback that I bought at the time came with endorsements from style mags The Face and I-D, as well as Ridley Scott and The Guardian.
   Set in 1855, The Difference Engine imagines a Victorian London where Charles Babbage perfected his calculating engine - for which he produced complete designs and theories, but never constructed a working version (although you can see a recreation of it in the Science Museum), and kicked-started the information age a century and a half early. It tells the story of a mysterious set of Babbage engine punch cards, created by Ada Byron (daughter of Lord Byron, and in reality a gifted mathematician and associate of Babbage), that pass through various hands before falling into the possession of Edward Mallory, a scholar who has gained notoriety after discovering the fossilised bones of a brontosaurus in America, and who is pursued by revolutionary elements that want the Modus for their own dark ends.
   The plot is pure pulp fiction, complete with femme fatale, dodgy policemen and flawed-but-pure-hearted hero (who even calls himself a paladin), twisting and complicating before the villainous Captain Swing incites London into violent rebellion and disorder when Mallory is forced to save the day.
   One reason for the popular acclaim for this book is the startling re-imagining of 19th Century London. Emboldened by the new technology, Lord Byron has formed a cabal of Radicals Lords, (including the newly ennobled Babbage, Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel) and seized the premiership from a Tory junta formed by the Duke Wellington. Old ideas of hereditary privilege and religious doctrine have been cast off in favour of rationalism and meritocracy, and the wave of radicalism has spread to a divided America split by civil war and interference from the newly energised British Empire.
   A large part of the fun is spotting historical figures in might-have-been situations. Keats drifts through as a failed medical student turned 'clacker' (the name for engine coders that rhymes not coincidentally with 'hacker'), Karl Marx has established a utopian commune on Manhattan Island, and Benjamin Disraeli is an ambitious hack journalist. There's something here for everyone as famous scientists, politicians and artists all make appearances - only the most erudite reader could catch them all, but every one you do catch gives a tiny frisson of being in on the joke. It's a brilliant combination of historical research and creative re-imaging pulled off with considerable style.
   More than a collection of anachronistic gags, though, The Difference Engine is concerned directly with contemporary issues. The political agenda of the Rad Lords mirrors the ascendant technocratic class of the late 1980s; the bohemian clackers mock the Mondo 2000-style hacker counterculture; and Captain Swing explains the eventual collapse of authority in London in terms of catastrophe theory. It picks out similarities between our times and the 19th century, when heavy engineering promised to produce utopia in the same way computers did in the 1980s, and still do today. In fact, its sideways-in-time setting makes it fresher than much of the cutting-edge cyberpunk published at the time.
   The Difference Engine crystallised a subgenre that had been lurking at the fringes of SF since Moorcock's Oswald Bastable trilogy in the early 1970s, in which an alternative Edwardian London is the backdrop for a critique of Imperial Britain. A number of other works are cited as early expressions of steampunk - Christopher Priest's The Space Machine, and Tim Powers' Anubis Gates - but it can be more easily traced through TV shows such as Doctor Who and The Wild, Wild West, and films like The First Men In The Moon and The Time Machine. It's not, perhaps, the most versatile genre and The Difference Engine uses up most of the best ideas. Since its publication only Paul di Filippo's Steampunk Trilogy and Alan Moore's League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen have done anything more than play with the aesthetics of big steam engines and fanciful Victorian engineering, but steampunk ideas have been more successfully used in computer games such as the Thief and Fallout series.
   The Difference Engine is a class act that plays to the strengths of its two authors. Sterling puts his unique brand of plausible futurism to good use, while the existential detective plot with its enigmatic mcguffin is pure Gibson. Between them, they create a cast of fictional and historical characters that marry up seamlessly to produce a riveting and thought provoking work of counterfactual fiction.
Difference Engine

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