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

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The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers (1983)

The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers (1983)

Original Release Date: 1983
Publisher: Ace Books
Author: Tim Powers

The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, is a very complicated novel that deals with the concept of time travel and is also considered one of the foremost classics of contemporary steampunk fiction (though I’m not one-hundred percent why that is, seeing as there really isn’t any steam or punk) .

The story is set in 1983, after a brief introduction that takes place in the 1800’s. The protagonist of the story, Brendan Doyle, is asked to a meeting by a millionaire named J. Cochran Darrow because Doyle is a poetry expert and is noted for being very intimate in his knowledge of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a poet (created by the Tim Powers for the novel) named William Ashbless…and the romantic poets in general.

Darrow has apparently figured out the secret of time travel, in which there are multiple windows through time (able to be calculated mathematically) in which someone can just pop in for the duration, which varies from entryway to entryway. Darrow is charging people one million dollars each to go back in time and see a lecture put on by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. During the trip, Doyle is kidnapped and misses his jump back  to present-day and finds himself living on the streets of London in the 1800’s, reduced to panhandling and other money-making schemes in order to survive long enough to find a way back or at the very least live out his days in comfort with his knowledge of the future. Along the way, he meets many incredible characters such as Lord Byron, William Ashbless, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a magical and sadistic clown named Horrabin, Muhammad Ali (not the boxer…the Ottoman commander in Egypt in the 1800’s) and an evil shape-shifting werewolf serial killer named Dog Face Joe.

Yup.

Tim Powers is great at setting the scene. He uses authentic phrases and language that I actually had to look up to know what it meant. If I hadn’t looked it up, I still would have been able to glean what it meant due to his use of context, so it was sort of fun to have that choice. An example of how he did this is during a conversation between gypsies at the beginning, where two men are conversing and it goes like “Will you eat some dinner? They’ve got a hotchewitchi on the fire, smells very kushto.” Hotchewitchi is hedgehog/groundhog and Kushto means “good”. I had to look those both up but then later on it was alluded to in context and I figured out I most likely wouldn’t have had to look them up in the first place.

The characters are all very memorable and I really enjoyed getting to meet Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The setting was very detailed. We saw London through the eyes of a modern man seeing what had changed from 1983 to the 1800’s. It was really neat.

There were a few drawbacks, such as some pacing issues (I felt, anyway) toward the end and some confusing shifts in time where we miss entire swaths of Doyle’s shenanigans.

Overall, if you like Steampunk or Sci-Fi, time travel or fantasy (especially all of the above) then check it out. It’s a good read.

JOE Rating: ★★★★

Check out a preview of the book for free, HERE

 

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest (2009)

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest (2009)

Release Date: September 29, 2009
Publisher: Tor Books
Author: Cherie Priest

I just recently started writing and reading steampunk so after Tim Powers’ novel, The Anubis Gates, this was the novel I chose to tackle next.

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, is a steampunk adventure set in the 1800’s in a semi-fictitious Seattle. There are two main characters; a mother and her son, their names being Briar and Ezekial Wilkes. Briar’s former husband, Leviticus Blue, was commissioned by Russian prospectors to create an invention that would be capable of drilling through Alaska’s thick ice in search of gold. On a test run, the machine that was created (called Boneshaker due to the fact that it produced bone-shaking rumbles as it was running) tore open the earth and unknowingly released a toxic gas that was later named The Blight and turned normal folks into zombie-like creatures called Rotters.

Fast forward to when Ezekial is a teenager and wants to clear his father’s name of any wrongdoing. He goes into the now-walled portion of the city the blight was emanating from in search of any clues as to his father’s innocence and meets lots of crazy steampunk characters on the way.

The enduring image that will stay with me of this world is that of a dirty dish sponge, yellowed and decaying on the rim of the sink as it’s forgotten and sitting in a corner while a new one is used. That dirty sponge would be the Seattle of this story; largely ignored by the Federal government as the Civil War rages on. A large portion of the city has fallen underground after Boneshaker knocked out entire city blocks by crumbling its foundations in its maiden voyage. A wall surrounds this devastation as the blight gas continues to seep from the cracks in the earth, coating everything in a yellow-brown, coffee-stained color. People live underground, struggling daily just to survive.

Cherie Priest was consistently good at one thing during the entire novel, and that was imagery. While being a novel set in a world of darkness and suffering, Cherie’s tone was fairly light and she had an underlying current of hope in her prose and her characters which carried through to the end.

I liked the novel and look forward to reading the other books in Priest’s series, but I hope the next ones are a bit more character-oriented and I also want to see way more steampunk aesthetic aside from just the goggles and airships.

JOE Rating: ★★★

Check out an excerpt of Boneshaker for free HERE

Audiobook Excerpt For Boneshaker