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16 April, 2006

Review: 'The Difference Engine' (William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, 1990)

Having completed this a few minutes ago, for the third time since 1992, I still don't 'get' it.

'The Difference Engine' is credited as being the defining, though not the first, mainstream 'steampunk' sci-fi novel, introducing information technology to a historical setting. As such, it is frequently cited as an 'important' book, and not only because the authors are key figures in the cyberpunk genre. However, calling it 'important' isn't quite the same as saying it's a particularly 'good' book, or worth actually reading.

The central premise is that in the novel's alternative history, Charles Babbage succeeded in refining and manufacturing his Analytical Engine (not his Difference Engine, but the latter makes a more apt title), revolutionising the British Empire though the application of mass-produced computing.
In theory, the book's three interlinked stories explore this alternative Victorian London, but though I'm sure it was meticulously researched and thought-through, it fails to capture the feel of the age, coming across as too dry and ultimately superficial. One would hope and expect to be immersed in the fictional culture, but that never happens, and one is kept at a distance.

Having glanced though customer reviews at Amazon, it seems that though few rated the narrative, several thought the book to be an excellent description of Victorian Britain. I don't remotely agree. I can only presume those reviewers are non-Brits who have read few genuine Victorian novels and have limited knowledge of the era. Perhaps the novel provides an adequate semblance for (stereo)typical sci-fi readers, but the wider-read will be less impressed.

The characters are poorly-developed and their actions lack internal consistency; some seem to have been included merely to represent 'types' the authors wished to illustrate. Some of the dialogue is awful. Just as Dick Van Dyke spectacularly failed to capture working-class Cockney in 'Mary Poppins', the novel's characters emit bizarre parodies of Victorian English.

The single element linking the three stories is ultimately tangential and, at the risk of revealing a plot spoiler, is less than thrilling when it's finally explained. If that one factor is ignored (and I found that too easy), one is left with three standalone stories set in a theoretically interesting (but, as I said, under-realised) world. That needn't be a problem, but it means each individual 'novella' needs to be particularly compelling, to draw-in a reader afresh. I don't think that's achieved.

Only for Gibson & Sterling fans, I think, and perhaps for those tempted to make a better attempt at the concept.

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