Another post on Mr B is coming. Soon I hope, though I’m being carefully
vague even with myself on exactly when. Before Christmas. I have two other
essays to write before the end of term, realistically one had better be
written by the middle of next week, so Mr B is low-priority.
In the meantime I’ve been having another look at The Difference
Engine. I originally posted a review back in July of last year, which
[D]on’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.
is a rather comprehensive dismissal of a book by two towering figures on the
SF scene of 20 years ago, when the book was written.
Something which struck me about that initial review was that I was terribly
interested in character and story, but less interested in
political commentary or philosophy, and as for world-building, well that’s a
low priority even when reading SF and Fantasy proper. But I propose that a
key part of reading any text is in figuring out what its own parameters and
ground rules are. Whether that works for you personally or not, I guess it’s
incumbent upon you to explore that. I have been aided in
this revisitation by a classmate of mine with a more recent mathematical
education than mine.
Let’s start off this time by looking at the book not as a novel at all – not
as something designed primarily to entertain. I’d like to think about it as
an allegory instead. An allegory is basically an explanation rendered into
symbolic terms. You know what I’m talking about: Aslan, Rasselas, etc.
The allegory in this instance is about systems of control. This is a central
preoccupation of the Cyberpunk generation. Cyberpunk is explicitly about
operators outside of a system trying both to use and abolish that system. In
Neuromancer, Case is both the prototype and the exemplar: a
marginalized hacker, he has effectively dropped out of the corporate system,
but the skills he retains see him hired to attack that system. His ultimate
goal however, is basically to rejoin the system which he is substantially
undermining. The Matrix really seems like the logical end-point of
this preoccupation, where humanity only exists at all in the system’s
cracks, and despite their opposition to it, even Neo and friends are
basically dependant on it because without it they are utterly without
meaning. Perhaps the great failing of the sequels was in not understanding
the necessity of this dichotomy, or how it worked.
In The Difference Engine the system of control is a pseudo-police
state, where your “number” is stored and makes accessible all pertinent
details of your life. Compared with the height of modern invasive
monitoring, it seems pretty tame, but it is conceptually totalitarian.
Moreover, it is overtly judgemental – the modern system of control we live
in doesn’t really care what you do, as long as you don’t attempt to hurt the
system. The Victorian hypocrisy drives a less benign society and use for the
machine. The object of the system is eventually to be all encompassing: to
say everything about everyone. Through total information, total power.
Enter the macguffin which is the central plot point that joins the four
novellas – the Modus. The modus is a proof of Godel’s Incompleteness
Theorem. The incompleteness theorem basically says that for any system of
mathematics, you can’t prove the validity of the axioms. In simple formal
logic terms, you can use a formula like: All A are B, All C are B, therefore
all C are A; if I’ve got that right. What you can’t prove is the validity of
those initial premises. The incompleteness theorem is basically the reason
that Kirk or the Doctor are able to cause computers to self-destruct: the
unprovability of the axioms implies the possibility of inconsistency (though
I should state that the incompleteness theorem does not necessitate any such
inconsistency) which they inevitably find.
To a society based around complete information, complete control, the modus
represents the glaring imperfection that is inevitable. Thematically it
means that however much they know, however invasive they become, some sliver
of blindness will remain. That undermines the absolutist philosophy of the
powers that be inside the fiction. In practical terms it is insignificant,
but it calls into question the basis of the society and so is tremendously
In The Matrix, Neo is the equivalent of the modus, at least if you
believe the Architect, which you are not necessarily bound to do. He
represents the inability of the system to be complete, and that’s why he
does not obey its rules, and why he represents a danger to the matrix
itself. Again, while the sequels toy with this idea, I don’t think they
really push home its natural result and conclusion.
The Difference Engine keeps the modus as its central preoccupation,
but through the four main novellas, its significance is kept unclear. Its
enormous thematic importance is held in reserve, and so to all intents and
purposes while actually reading the novel, it is a mysterious object which
could indeed be anything. After the big reveal, I think you are supposed to
re-examine the whole text in light of it, and what it signifies. To that
extent it qualifies as a twist – not a plot twist, but a narrative one. Like
realizing Bruce Willis is dead, it casts what you have experienced in a
Structurally, the implication is that each successive novella represents an
expansion of the world. In the first part, there is lots hinted at – you
read between the lines to fill in what you don’t know, but you’re guessing.
The second part shows you a much larger chunk of the world, and explains a
lot more of the mechanisms of that world to you: in light of the second
part, many elements in the first make a lot more sense. And so on through
the remaining two parts. At the end, the reveal comes, but not in a lot of
ways a resolution: how can the world be finally resolved? It can’t. That
becomes the touchstone of the work.
This kind of perspective renders the work much more successful than my first
reading, trying to take it on what are effectively my own terms. It
transforms this work from being a failure, as I originally claimed, to being
a very clever and successful work: more like an intricate clockwork engine
than a story really. But unfortunately, I think my end conclusion remains
the same: it’s a lot of work to put in for what you get, and the lack of a
real pay-off on the typical requirements for literature greatly reduces the
value of reading this book. While it is tremendously clever in this second
reading, I can’t help but feel that it shouldn’t sacrifice the other
potentials I have previously outlined in order to deliver this sterile