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The Difference Engine Revisited

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When I first thought about blogging my steampunk reads and rereads, The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, was at the top of the list. I read Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil. I acquired a book about Babbage’s actual Difference Engine. I had clearly set up for myself a dissertation-chapter length blog post. Of course I never wrote it. Having recently reread The Difference Engine for the formative stages of a couple of academic papers, I’ve realized that I do have a great deal to say about it, but that this isn’t the forum for all of it. Here’s a shorter version.

This book was my first introduction to steampunk as a concept, back in the 90s. I’d been delaying my reread because, I think, I’d seen mixed reactions to the book in reviews, and I wondered if it could live up to my very high level of memories and expectations. It’s a dark novel, but this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Gibson’s and Sterling’s cyberpunk fiction; if a reader is looking solely for fun and adventure, this isn’t really the place.

But did the book live up to my remembrance? Very much so. This book is an amazing read for someone with an existing knowledge of the period. The first time I read it, I was someone with an interest in the period and its fiction, but not a specialist; I was already a fan of Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, as well as an avocational reader of Dickens, the Brontes, and George Eliot. I liked it, despite not being able to decode every single character or social movement presented. The second time I read it, I was in graduate school specializing in the nineteenth-century British novel, and I was stunned at amazingly well-researched and well thought out the text was. Of course The Difference Engine can be appreciated by the general reader; there are many details that add richness but that the story is absolutely fine without. (For example, you really don’t need to know that Sybil Gerard was originally a character in a Disraeli novel to appreciate Gibson & Sterling’s Sybil. In fact, differing circumstances have caused her to develop so differently that she bears little resemblance to her original, in ways that make perfect sense.) A wonderful online resource, The Difference Dictionary , can help the reader catch up and appreciate the intricacy of the planning that went into the novel, but again, it’s not necessary to know the details to enjoy the novel.

Most of the more readily recognizable historical characters appear offstage (Byron, Babbage, Shelley) or in smaller roles (Ada, Disraeli, Keats); this is something of a relief when you consider how many fictional versions of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, and Oscar Wilde inhabit steampunk and gaslamp novels. (Okay, I admit, there cannot possibly be too much Oscar Wilde.)

The Difference Engine hinges on a single major event from which everything else stems: Charles Babbage has actually constructed his Difference Engine (computer) in the early nineteenth century. The various historical and fictional personages have lives that have turned out differently, accordingly, and as someone who does know the figures and the milieu in which they lived, I’m very impressed – it’s all quite credibly developed. The attention to detail is impressive. I loved seeing threads from early in the book reappear later in the book. I love that a miraculously middle-aged Keats has become a kinotropist, that, as aforesaid, characters are lifted wholesale from a novel by Benjamin Disraeli (and their fates play out very differently), that Lord Byron’s become prime minister and that ideas of Chartism, Luddism, etc. are adapted to the new circumstances.

Is it flawless? No, by no means. (And I could do without the cyberpunk-y last two pages, although I appreciate their significance.) Is it fun? Intermittently. Is it a deeply satisfying read to me, is it something that stands up to my knowledge of the period? Absolutely. Jeter/Blaylock/Powers may have originated steampunk, but for me, this is where it first explored its true potential.


Written by Catherine Siemann

June 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. It is one of the best “single major event” turning point novels in all of alternative historical fiction. It is perhaps second only to Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” to which it owes a lot structurally and philosophically. The two works even share a similar sense of humor and both conclude with endings that are, for want of a better term, a bit trippy.
    Thanks for posting the link to The Difference Dictionary. Had I known about that a few months ago I could have constructed a much more elaborate p-clad analysis of the story.

    Samuel S. Sobek

    June 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    • I haven’t read much Philip K. Dick; he’s known for the trippy, yeah? I think the ending here is also a nod back at their own cyberpunk work, as well; I’ve actually been pondering it quite a bit lately and what those last two pages imply for the whole novel.

      I know you prefer things that are solidly grounded historically; I’m curious which other steampunk novels might come close to this one for you.

      Catherine Siemann

      June 10, 2011 at 5:34 pm

  2. I’m avoiding your review of “Embassytown,” because I just got a copy via my Random House friend and don’t want to spoil myself. Weirdly, I have no such compunction about this book, even though I plan/hope to read it one day. As I reader, I’ll be much more like you were at the time of your original read – though my Victorian-novel period is probably much further in the past – but so long as the story stands on its own, I’m fine with that. I suppose the existence of on-line resources like The Difference Dictionary render most annotated editions obsolete, but still…if you were looking for a fun project and could interest their publisher… Just sayin’.

    Leslie Wainger

    June 17, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    • Embassytown is one of those books you should absolutely read unspoiled.

      My Victorian novel period is still in the present, but yeah, there was definitely that moment when I went from the casual reader (when I was practicing law, Victorian novels were essentially fantasy novels for me, the world was so different from the one I was experiencing) to Deeply Informed Reader.

      I’m always interested in reading reviews of it by people who are new to steampunk who find it disappointing; lots don’t, but lots also do. I couldn’t disagree more but I suspect it’s because of present-generation expectations vs. concept formation that was going on back in the day. It’s very much of its moment — Gibson & Sterling’s steampunk is very cyberpunk — but it’s also a template for my favorite kind of steampunk, the books that are really engaged with alternate history, alternate technology, social issues and social mores.

      The Difference Dictionary is excellent and well-researched but there’s definitely room for even more in-depth annotation, for certain. Most of the books I see annotated editions of tend to be considerably older (and generally more out of copyright), so I don’t know what the ins and outs of a project like that might entail . . .


      June 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      • They (annotated editions) do tend to be older. I bought “The Annotated ‘Dracula'” a year or so ago when it came out, and I’ve got “The Annotated ‘Alice,'” etc., which is why I said you’d have to go to the book’s publisher (ie: rights holder), but still… Is there an anniversary coming up? With enough lead time for you to prepare the book, of course.

        Leslie Wainger

        June 17, 2011 at 5:15 pm

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