The Difference Engine [1990]

by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling.

The pitch of the book is basically Steampunk: giant calculation engines have transformed Victorian times into an even more dystopian statement of technology gone awry than the real Industrial revolution, which was pretty brutal to start with.

Fix this idea firmly in your mind. It’s an intriguing one. The Victorian world was driven by a whole series of bizarre and cruel notions, from phrenology to eugenics, to the birth of communism, to the white man’s burden. The Industrial Revolution basically over-turned society as it was then, re-shaping virtually every aspect of daily life. Push this even further, with the invention of workable Babbage-type engines, allowing those in power to have the kind of unbridled information-processing power we expect in a modern or near-future Cyberpunk setting, and you’ve got the ingredients for something pretty powerful.

Can you just imagine it? Phrenology and other pseudo-scientific nonsenses beloved of the Victorians, carefully programmed and meticulously pursued by people with real information power? Imagine Victorian work-ideals amplified by computerized efficiency reports? Imagine the work-houses being able to share information and track the “decadence” of its lazy inmates through their shifty lives.


Give this scenario to a writer with a Dickensian eye for the human element. A working class or dispossessed hero, opposed by the inhuman and dehumanizing machine of Victorian England upgraded by computation.

Can you imagine that book? Are you holding it in your hands? Isn’t this a book you want to read?

Well, you’d better write it then, because The Difference Engine delivers on almost none of this, at least, not with any kind of consistency or compassion. TDE is basically four novellas loosely stitched together, which touch on some parts of the potential I outline above. But it has Sterling’s typically poor grasp of what makes a good story, as opposed to merely a vehicle for his grab-bag of neat ideas.

In many ways, the novel feels like the two authors got together and had this really great idea for a spy-thriller in this setting. They got about half way through, and realized that neither of them had much expertise at writing that kind of thing, and so wrote a short and elliptical ending, dusted their hands off and posted the thing to be published.

The summary here is: don’t bother reading this book. It’s not bad, it’s just rather thin on the ground. Once you’ve had the basic concept explained to you, you’ve pretty much gotten what there is to be had.

It’s a pity, and I hope someone else comes back to this idea and writes something with a meaningful plot, characterization, and a bit of actual social commentary.

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3 Responses to The Difference Engine [1990]

  1. thirstygirl says:

    Thank you for the review, and this would be why I have repeatedly taken the book out of the library and returned it without ever finishing it. It seems like it could be SO GOOD and yet totally fails to live up to the blurb’s promise.

    • mashugenah says:

      I really really liked the first “Iteration”, because Sybil seemed ideally placed near the end of that to embark on a really cool story… which then just never happened.

      At the end of that first bit we have your classic underdog hero, with some useful skills, a suitably shady path, a powerful bit of leverage and displaying some of those useful underdog traits of guile, cunning and ambition.

      Why they abandoned her to follow round this rather boring palaeontologist that picked up on hardly any of the loose ends from their first bit is utterly and totally beyond me. 😦

  2. Pingback: The 12 Discs of Christmas, The Indifference Engine | My One Contribution To The Internet

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