The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

Release Date: September, 1990
Publisher: Victor Gollancz Ltd
Author: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is a novel set in 1855, primarily, and concerns the invention of an analytical engine (essentially a computer by today’s standards) by a character named Charles Babbage. This sets off a spur of military and industrial advances that didn’t actually come until about a hundred years later in actual history. In this alternate history, Britain/The UK is vastly more powerful than they were in reality because of this and there are also lots of other little changes like America being fragmented (due to Britain’s involvement in hindering them in fear that they would rise in power as America does in actual history).

The Difference Engine felt more sci-fi than I am normally used to (I’m primarily a fantasy reader). Rather than dealing with time travel, like in books such as The Anubis Gates, it’s just characters from Britain in the 1800’s and the way they supposedly spoke. It was initially difficult to read because of this, and because of all the idioms and terms the characters used (One example being the word “flash” which in context meant “cool”, I think, how we use it today. One of the characters saying to Sybil, the main character, “A gal looks very flash in bed, with black silk stockings,” was the only exception to that rule. In any case, some of the idioms were a bit confusing to my American eyes, and that’s okay because it’s another time these characters live in and it’s good if they don’t sound modern. If one of us went back in time today we probably would barely be able to understand folks back then, and vice versa.

The setting was very detailed and rich in this novel. There were all sorts of little nods to things that weren’t immediately obvious but impacted how I viewed the scene. There was one part where a character named Huxley was walking back and forth and the writers threw in the fact that he was walking on a Turkish carpet. The novel was filled with examples like that, and it really helped fill out the world. It’s all in the details, man.

The characters were the real draw to The Difference Engine, and there were lots of them. We had Sybil Gerard (she’s the primary main character) who is essentially a prostitute, or a fallen woman who courts politicians and affluent men. (Sybil also happens to be a character borrowed from another novel by Benjamin Disraeli; Sybil, which I’ve never read). There is also Edward “Leviathan” Mallory and he is somewhat of an explorer/paleontologist. Finally, there is Laurence Oliphant, who is the literary version of the actual author Laurence Oliphant from the 1800’s. As in The Anubis Gates, we get to see the fictional/alternate versions of historical figures (which I always find interesting) other than Oliphant, too…including Lord Byron, who also appeared in The Anubis Gates and John Keats, who is a kinotropist…essentially someone who operates mechanical screens. Sam Houston, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Karl Marx are all mentioned and appear at various points, too.

This novel is complicated, but in a good way. If you can get the hang of the lexicon that the authors use, you’re sure to enjoy it. You may even pick up a few more words to use in your own vocabulary. (I kind of want to use “flash” now). The novel seems dense at times….but also mostly in a good way, though I did have to wade through some of it because I’m not very cerebral or sci-fi oriented. As a fantasy reader, I could definitely still appreciate the amazing alternate history world of fantastic machines and technology that Gibson and Sterling have created. Give it a shot, it’s definitely worth your time!

JOE Rating: ★★★★

Check out a free preview of The Difference Engine HERE

If You’d Like To Know What A Difference Engine Actually IS – You Can See It In Motion Here