Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review of "The Difference Engine" by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

The ‘punk’ in ‘cyberpunk’ comes from the generally rebellious stance of the sub-genre.  In contrast to the squeaky-clean space visions produced by the likes of Asimov and Clarke, sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, mixed with near-future tech, are instead presented as the future.  So when two of its most prominent representatives genre decided to collaborate on a novel, what better way to rebel than defy expectation?

One its premiere stylist, the other its most outspoken media voice, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling buck cyberpunk expectation with their cooperative effort The Difference Engine.  Applying computing in Western society nearly a century before it occurred in reality, the two create an imaginative alternate history, and in the process pen one of the most influential works of steampunk to date.

The Difference Engine is set in London of 1855.  Charles Babbage’s theories of computing having been made mechanically possible in difference engines—primitive computers powered by steam that process punch cards (see Section B.4 here).  Spindles, gears, and feeder chutes, alongside steam gurneys, telegraphs, and smog abound in this alternate vision of England’s capital.  The plot is centered around a peculiar set of punch cards which are being pursued by various personages.  Luddites, Communards, Industrial Radicals, and other political interests giving chase, adventure and intrigue propel the plot through social and political waters, the use of the cards growing ever more mysterious as the story develops.

Largely an effort of world building, Sterling and Gibson go into relevant detail describing London suffused with the direct and indirect results of mechanical computing.  The industrial revolution taking on new meaning, everywhere the details of produced goods are evident.  From the steam-powered underground to the uniformity of men’s hats, the proliferation of advertising to the governance of demographics, the influence of the difference engines permeates life.  Even Britain’s romantic poets are put into play.  Keats is portrayed as a clacker (programmer) skilled at kinoscopes—mechanical computers that process punch cards to display pixilated images moving on a screen.  His contemporaries faring no worse, including Byron and Shelley, a small portion of the enjoyment reading the book is the contrast of details to real history.

But if world building is one important aspect to The Difference Engine, then certainly Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1845) is another informative part.  (See here.) I have not read Disraeli’s novel, so whether it is inspiration, a surface on which to comment, or a principle to subvert is up to the reader.  No matter one, some, or all, Gibson and Sterling ground their novel in ideologically fertile soil: the social, technical, and political aspects give the book relevancy that best reveals itself upon a second reading, not to mention add a degree of relevancy to the denouement.

A collaborative effort, The Difference Engine truly feels like an amalgam of the two writers’ styles.  The prose is not as lean and sharp as Gibson’s typical work, nor is it in the loose, more mainstream style of Sterling.  Given the quality of the narrative, it’s obvious that both spent  time polishing the text, especially considering the amount of period phrases and terms included in the dialogue.  (Dollymops, coves, and innumerable other words gone from contemporary dialogue make for delightful reading for those who enjoy vocabulary a little archaic.)  While Sterling’s influence can be seen in the political games and Gibson’s in the attention to detail, the end result is a seamless whole.  Unique between the two, nothing is lost and everything is gained in the fraternal manner in which the novel was obviously written. 

Potential pitfalls for readers include language, focus, and climax.  Dialogue arcane to say the least, one should approach the conversations of The Difference Engine with an open mind.  While context always provides meaning, the authors nevertheless utilize a hefty amount of lingo from the Victorian era—or at least it seems; I am in fact no expert.  The book as much a presentation of the world of the difference engine as a story, readers should also be wary that what seems like wandering story, sometimes is a wandering story, but is always the staging for the imagined world and the influences of the technology.  Important plot details tucked quietly in the least obvious of scenes, attention is required despite the nonchalance of description.  And lastly, readers looking for entertainment—a grand reveal at the conclusion—will be sorely disappointed.  The denouement more powerful as an idea than a scene, some have—and will—walk away confused.  The alert reader, however, will recognize the authors’ aims.  Suffice to say, the reread value is extremely high.

Wittingly or not, The Difference Engine is a seminal work of steampunk that shows two writers who enjoy the craft, ready to make a statement in the process.  Slow but steadily paced, there are elements that are digressive for world building’s sake, and elements that appear digressive given the circumstances but are in fact important for the overall plot.  Containing less gravity than a typical offering from either author, the story is exploratory overall, but does contain important ideas regarding technology and society, namely the dimensions computing adds to society.  Steam power everywhere, Sterling and Gibson have fantastically imagined London under the influence of retro-futuristic technology, from punch cards to steam car races, producing a delightfully written adventure that has depth if given the thought.

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