Fiction Review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

GibsonSterling_TheDifferenceEngineThe year is 1855, and Britain is in the throes of the computer revolution.

That’s the premise for The Difference Engine: an alternate history in which Charles Babbage actually built his analytical engine. Technological development has accelerated so fast that one of the characters is able to bet on a Victorian Formula 1 in which the cars are powered by steam.

The Difference Engine diverges from history as much because of the politics that would have been necessary to get the analytical engine built as because of the power of the engine itself. The historical Babbage was never able to secure government funding. His talent for falling out with people didn’t help, but whoever made the decision presumably didn’t understand how powerful computing could and would be. Ada Lovelace, who had already written a program for the unbuilt engine, bankrupted herself by trying to raise money through a flawed gambling system and died in her mid-thirties.

In history re-imagined by Gibson and Sterling, Babbage presented his designs to a progressive government led by Prime Minister Lord Byron, Lovelace’s father, which had previously overthrown the repressive conservatives led by the Duke of Wellington. Under Byron, Lovelace’s father, the government was open to innovative scientific ideas, especially those that it could use to secure itself against insurgency. For a novel published in 1990, the theme of increased processing power being applied to increase surveillance is eerily prescient.

The Difference Engine is as much a political thriller as a technothriller, as much of the plot revolves around a radical plot to challenge Byron’s government who, in the way of progressives who accede to power, have become the new conservatives.

The technology and politics of The Difference Engine are never allowed to get in the way of it being tremendous fun. At one point, an angry palaeontologist clanks and chuffs through London’s Great Stink in a steam sports car to confront his nemesis. The novel brims with deception, conspiracies and riots. As with all the best alternate histories, there are references that only make sense if you know a little of the history, but they were spread thinly enough that they wouldn’t have got in the way if I didn’t understand them.

That said, I did particularly enjoy the reported conflict between Friedrich Engels, Britain’s leading industrialist, and Karl Marx, founder of the Manhattan Commune.

But forget the history. Read it because it’s fun.

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Posted in Book review: fiction

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