One day, at the end of class, she beckoned me over Are you going to turn your next paper in on time Of course, I answered, non chalant, with a crooked smile why wouldn t I Because you turned the last four in late Crestfallen, I merely nodded, the chastened acolyte, vowing that I would do better, next time.
It was my habit to sit in my little apartment, a few blocks off campus, late into the hours of the night, not writing papers I watched old BBC series, worked on my own little projects, and visited this site, to read about Victorian London.
There I discovered Henry Mayhew, founder of the era s most successful and brilliant satirical publication, Punch , who spent his free time wandering the slums and carefully cataloging the lives of the poor While considered an eccentric waste of time by his peers, his London Labour and the London Poor is a groundbreaking work of social research, and filled with the most fascinating and unbelievable details of life, some horrible to tell, others uproarious, and all the sort of thing which make any aspiring writer throw up his hands and cry out imagination is a fool s crutch, which never could pretend to depict the world half so rich or unusual as it truly is I delighted likewise to read of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and not merely for his fantastic name but because he contrived to build a shipping tunnel beneath the Thames in 1825 and succeeded Then there are the innumerable pieces of erotic fiction that flourished in the upright, proper age, an amusing reminder that there is no new act or desire under the sun, as plentifully evidenced by curious work of one mysterious Walter , a man of the upper middle class who wrote an extensive, rather unflattering memoir of his own sexual escapades, My Secret Life , which is at turns amusing, disturbing, unbelievable, and often, altogether too human.
I can still remember the night when, up late with a paper to write, I stumbled across a growing subculture in California, Steampunk , whose devotees dress themselves in top hats, cutaway coats, and other such fine style, drinking Absinthe, and hearkening back to that sophisticated age My interest was piqued.
I traced the movement back to this book and picked up a copy, used Of course, I already knew Gibson and Sterling as the innovators of the Cyberpunk subgenre, so I was excited to start A half chapter in, I decided I should probably know about the Victorian before I tried this book again, and so it sat on my shelf for long years It isn t that the story cannot be enjoyed simply as an adventure, but without prior knowledge I worried I d miss the subtext.
I looked into Steampunk and found that its adherents didn t know much about Brunel, Mayhew, Walter, Ada Lovelace, or Disraeli let alone obscure figures They knew Byron, Keats, Shelley, maybe Blake They were mostly music scene kids with money who wanted to show off, though even their knowledge of the fashions tended to be sadly spotty and incoherent.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the movement and the many books that have sprouted up since it became popular , is the fact that while the genre is called Steam punk, taking place in an era when economic inequality exceeded even the modern day, when anarchists, terrorists, nihilists, utopianists were bombing cafes to protest classist, top down governance, when native peoples were rising up against the brutalities of industrialized colonialism, when the women of London were learning Jujitsu so they could fight off policemen while organizing to get the vote yet all these cosplayers and writers focus on wealthy dilletantes, scientist inventors, the landed gentry, and nobility They ignore all of the battles for equality and rights so they can instead play at a history of white, upper class power the same reinvention of glorious white history offered by most genre fantasy.
So it s curious that this book, one of the starting places of the movement is so obsessed with precise knowledge and references to the period It is not a reconstruction it presents an alternate history, so all the characters we see are different than we would expect them It s amusing to watch these familiar personalities in unfamiliar, yet fitting roles.
Likewise we have a mix of periods clashing together, since the whole concept is that Babbage s Difference Engine, the first computer, was actually built when he designed it, and not a century later It s always a curious question to ponder what if Archimedes early explorations into Calculus had been widely known instead of lost for millenia What if the Greeks had realized the steam dynamo could be than a toy Playing with these ideas can provide a lot of fodder for writers, looking to the past in the same way Welles and Verne looked to the future Many of the most amusing moments in The Difference Engine are throwaway references, such as Ada Lovelace asking if there might be some future in the notion of electrical power , hinting at the fact that electric power progressed from theory to practice quickly in the real world, while the computer languished, but it need not have been so.
But as I said, the central story is not overly concerned with in depth knowledge terms and references are thrown around constantly, but none are required in order to comprehend what s going on The MacGuffin is a MacGuffin interesting if we understand why, but hardly necessary for the plot.
The structure of the story is unusual, and often, the book feels like an intellectual exercise between the writers than a streamlined story There is a commitment to verisimilitude, realism, and historicity throughout, so that things are never tied up neatly there is no single, easy end, and we get three related stories which, as a whole, tell a larger story, but there is guesswork in the gaps between them.
We even get a short section of related documents newspaper stories, letters, speeches, and such things which many Victorian writers prominently Stoker used to spice up their works and play with the narrative voice It s a useful structure for authors, since it allows them to dole out information in pieces without suggesting an absentmindedly omniscient narrator.
Yet it is certainly possible to carry verisimilitude too far in the name of realism A story which painstakingly described every detail and moment, went off on digressions about every tertiary character or bit of fluff about the world, used realistically fragmented, stuttering dialogue, and killed off or abandoned characters at a moment s notice, all without a thought for how it would effect the structure or the story, would be very unpleasant and rather pointless reading.
So we must ask where to draw the line When does detail and allusion simply bog down the story When do sudden character exits make the story incomplete It s hard to find a rule of thumb, but we can say that any piece of information the audience likely already understands need not be made explicit, any detail which does not build mood, character, or plot can be safely left out, and a character should get some kind of complete personal arc before being unceremoniously dumped.
And in those regards, this book almost entirely succeeds Each individual story doesn t quite stand on its own, and together, they do not elevate the book there are too many spaces left unfilled but they do coalesce into something or less solid, something which we have experienced fully, and can walk away from having had our character arcs, and a very complete world.
The writing is also mature and carefully considered We can see the authors making numerous deliberate choices about what their world is, who their characters are, and who they aren t There are, as expected, some sparking moments of hot, flash prose probably Gibson s which illuminate moments here and there, as well as the overwhelming press of humanity the characters are all tactile, all pained, all reaching for release.
Of particular effect is a lone erotic scene, hearkening to illicit publications like The Pearl and to Walter s unpretentious confessional It is not pornographic, though it is undeniably of the flesh When it lingers, it does not do so to titillate with some overblown poetic ideal, but to send us back down to earth, to some awkward moment of recognition, some fleeting scent, interrupting that triumphal chariot ride to whisper an unwelcome memento mori.
The confusion of desires, anxieties, and all those compounding, competing thoughts paint such an evocative picture of the characters, in all their glory, fumbling but too filled with anticipation to really care Too often, authors give us a celebration of something inhuman, something untouchable, rather than a celebration of a moment of true humanity.
Victorian poetry is an unabashed exultation of the impossible, always recalling to me Edith Hamilton s observation in The Greek Way that a Greek paramour would no have said his love were beautiful as Venus than she would have believed it Beautiful as a roadside daisy is than enough, and has the added benefit of being true.
As I read along, I found myself comparing it to my own , earlier attempts to write in the subgenre which I ve subsequently expanded into my upcoming novel As usual, it only goes to show that if you don t read a genre before attempting to write in it, you re bound to cross familiar territory Happily, I started on a rather different tack, so no complete rewrite is in order.
This is not an easy book to simply rate I enjoyed it, but to what degree, it s harder to say In the end, I m undecided whether this experiment ever exceeded its curious exploration to become a lasting story As a vision, as a collection of ideas and characters, it is beyond reproach, but there is some faltering in the structure, a lack of cohesion which sometimes proves charming, and other times tiring.
But for all its flaws, at least it is something new, something daring and, if somewhat too large for its confines, at least not too small for them Odd that, procrastinator that I once was, here I am, late at night, writing a review for no reason at all and yes, I did get my Shakespeare essay in on time.
A dense, dark book Full of amazing ideas and richly realized settings and gadgets whetted my appetite for steampunk I know I missed a lot and might be willing to reread it at some point to pick up But the plot is full of holes and jumps and places where the authors seem to have lost interest and wandered off into something else Why spend the first 100 pages establishing Sybil as a major character and then send her away for the next 300 Why place so much emphasis on the French cards and then have them be not much of an issue If Captain Swing and his anarchists or were they communists Not so well shown were going to be such a big deal, why make them seem, in the lead up to their big scene and the scene itself like a pesky mosquito than a threat to national security I didn t imagine they were supposed to be ominous until the book told me they were This may be partly because of my other gripe uneven development of minor characters The main ones were done well, but Lady Ada, who was only a passing fancy, was strongly drawn, where Captain Swing, who was supposed to be a menace, was a cartoonish charicature And the ending Whoa, the anticlimax that was the ending We never even met Egremont, but we re supposed to care what he does The Grand Napoleon is destroyed, and we learn it just in passing This isn t a bad book it s just one that puts emphasis on mood and setting and gadgetry than on plot and characterization This a rare case where that feels like a conscious choice, not a fatal flaw.
Ach, I wish I could recommend this book highly, but I was very disappointed in it.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, given how much I loved Gibson s Neuromancer However, The Difference Engine was over long The plot threaded together slowly The character development of central characters was fragmentary and tended toward the superficial The writing of the action scenes was unbelievably bad the reader could barely piece together what was happening, and it almost made no sense The denouement provided no satisfaction I almost laughed aloud at Lady Ada giving a lecture talking about resistors and capacitors using the modern terminology as a possible way forward with computers As I closed the book I had the distinct sadness that I had wasted two weeks of leisure reading time that I would not get back again I m sorry if this seems overly critical, but really, when you read something by the author of Neuromancer, you set the bar a little higher originalLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, two major SciFi powerhouses, joined forces to produce The Difference Engine, a classic steampunk novel which was nominated for the 1990 British Science Fiction Award, the 1991 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1992 John W Campbell Memorial Award and Prix Aurora Award I listened to Brilliance Audio s version which was produced in 2010 and read by the always wonderful Simon Vance.
The Difference Engine takes place in a nearly unrecognizable Victorian England The fundamental difference between this alternate history and the real one is that Charles Babbage succeeded in building his Difference Engine the first analytical computer Thus, the information age develops along with the industrial revolution in the social, political, and scientific milieu of the 19th century This little historical event the development of the steam powered computer has a vast impact on subsequent history Meritocracy takes hold in England you ll recognize many of England s new savant lords , the American states never unite, Karl Marx makes Manhattan a commune, Benjamin Disraeli becomes a trashy tabloid writer, and Japan begins to emerge as a world power with England s help.
The idea of an earlier technological revolution affecting the course of history is fascinating But the best part of The Difference Engine is the flash steampunk setting full of gears and engines, pixilated billboards and slideshows, unreliable firearms, and lots of rum slang that s right and fly.
The problem with The Difference Engine is the plot It meanders slowly and strangely and is vaguely focused on a box of computer punch cards which contain unknown important information Several people are interested in the cards including Sybil, a courtesan who s based on Benjamin Disraeli s Sybil, mathematician Ada Lovelace daughter of Lord Byron , a paleontologist nicknamed Leviathan Mallory, and the author Laurence Oliphant Unfortunately, Mallory, who ends up being an Indiana Jones type of character, is the only one who s interesting or likable His segment of the novel has some exciting moments, but they seem only tangentially related to what comes before and after.
Most of the events seem random, obscure, and unconnected Perhaps the book is not at all about plot, though, because the authors seem to be trying to make a clever association between G del s mathematical theorems, chaos theory, punctuated equilibrium, and artificial intelligence I m not really sure If this is truly their intention, it is too thickly veiled and probably imperceptible to many readers The Matrix like ending will leave most people scratching their heads and wondering why they spent so many hours reading such inaccessible stuff.
The Difference Engine is a smart and stylish concept novel that just doesn t quite work.
Ok, so as far as I can tell, this book pretty much invented a lot of the steampunk trappings we take for granted And the world building is seriously awesome There s some fascinating alt history, lots of SCIENCE , and mies and miles of clockwork computers running everything The great horse races are replaced by mechanical guerneys, Japan makes wind up dolls out of whalebone, there s even a weird kind of digital animation The whole thing is put together exceedingly cleverly First rate world building at its very best.
But then, aaaarrrrrrrgh Yes, this is a very technical reviewer s term I think I m actually going to have to list the things that PISSED ME OFF, quite a bit, really.
Spoilers sown in liberally, but given that the authors themselves are the worst destroyers of tension, it won t ruin the book too much for you Here there be rantings.
1 Characterization Ok, this is really just personal preference than legitimate gripe The tone and characterization had a cold feel that I hesitate to dub masculine , especially after the beauty of the first two male authored books I read this year But it feels like a guy book The style reminds me of classic 1950s science fiction, or modern day action spy novels No one really elicits your sympathy Characters do not converse so much as pontificate The main character has manly weaknesses, such as being too rash, that do him no real harm in the long run Very Marty Stu It s all about the world and the plot and not really about the people at all Well, that s not ideal, but not really a hanging offense plenty of people seem to prefer this style, it s just not my cup of tea.
2 Sexism Here s where my blood first started to boil.
Ok, so the deeply problematic structure, which I ll address in a moment, strongly favors the paleontology Mallory Most of the book is from his perspective Mallory is a fairly typical Victorian technocrat, with some opinions about women and non Europeans that are fairly typical for his time For example, he has a conversation about the backwardness of the Japanese where it is clear that the authors think he has his head stuck up his ass and will ultimately be proven wrong Fine It s historically accurate He has a similar conversation about women and how no matter how smart they are, they really are useless without a man.
Thing is, from the way women are portrayed in this book, the authors believe that one.
There are only a handful of women who appear at all Surprisingly, it actually passes the Bechdel test near the beginning, two whores have an extended conversation about politics, paleontology, and singing, along with the discussion of their clients But well, they re basically all whores.
And I don t really mean women who have taken control of their sexuality and enjoy sex No, I mean women who sleep with a lot of men, without seeming to enjoy it at all, mostly for gain, and are looked down upon by the authors for doing it.
We have one of the ostensible main characters, a whore named Sybil who inadvertantly starts off the plot by following the instructions of her new client and then promptly disappears, reappearing to have turned out to have been helped by another man by being married to a third man who died before she met him She calls herself an adventuress, but despite a brief period where it looks like she might get some autonomy, is ultimately helpless without a man and kind of pathetic even so And a whore.
Then there are some minor female characters Sybil s roommate Hattie, who s also a whore, and has some of the least erotic sex with Mallory I ve ever read Basically, the very extended scene seems to exist to remind us that men have urges they need to assuage, even if women are kind of disgusting There s also a whore Mallory had sex with in Canada he thinks might have been diseased, and a Native American woman he slept with on a dig who he remembers with contempt as having slept with all the other men, too There s an actress, who might as well be a whore And there s Mallory s sister, who s totally a virgin This is important because when someone tries to ruin Mallory s life, they send her fiance a letter saying she s a slut At least she s not a whore, though.
And then there s Lady Ada Whom the world worships as the Queen of Engines, and whom Mallory desperately tries to help She s brilliant and beautiful and her father Lord Byron is Prime Minister, and she spends all her time with the royal family And the plot hinges on a box of punch cards that came into her posession Oh, look, it s a smart and useful female character who might be awesome, since everyone says she s awesome, right Well, no Because it turns out she s a drug addled, gambling addicted, hopelessly foolish slut who is coasting on a brief flowering of mathematical ability in her twenties that she s never repeated And she totally sleeps around That whore It s embarrassing, really.
3 Structure So remember how much trouble I had pinpointing who the main character is Well, the structure of this book is ridiculous I think the idea was that it was three linked novellas and an appendix a la Tolkein Only, while each novella comes to a conclusion, none of the conclusions are particularly satisfying.
The first section features Sybil the whore, and lasts 71 pages The most important thing she herself does is send a telegram It ends with a murder for mysterious reasons Next section is Mallory the paleontologist, for 249 pages, none of them involving Sybil whatsoever It vaguely mentions the incident that caps off her section, but not as anything important He acquires Lady Ada s punch cards and hides them Then has about a hundred pages of adventures with people trying to find the cards, which end without them finding the cards or him ever finding out what was with the cards He also briefly meets Oliphant the spy, who promptly disappears Suddenly, it s twenty years later and he dies of a stroke Whoops The third section is Oliphant, and lasts for 72 pages Sybil and Mallory are each mentioned in passing, but aren t particularly important The murder is solved in a completely anticlimatic way that has no bearing on the plot The cards are found and their purpose discovered, in a completely anticlimatic way that has no bearing on the plot The telegram was apparently the thing that is important to resolving the new major problem that crops up Only Oliphant gets syphilis in a paragraph near the end for no apparent reason and so disappears The Very Important Message is delivered by a minor character who s barely appeared before, and the section ends before the addressee actually reads the message So no resolution whatsoever.
The last section is a series of snippets press clippings, songs, etc It contains the pretty much unnecessary world building and denounement that the authors couldn t be bothered to work into the book But they came up with it, so you have to read it now It s 32 pages in which they answer none of the questions you want answered but fill out the details of things they gave you enough hints to work out on your own Useless.
Also, at the beginning and ends of chapters, they switch into present tense for no good reason The bulk of each chapter is in past tense.
4 Endings, or lack thereof Each section Progressively pretentious and experimental Sybil merely has her path diverge forever from the one interesting person she encountered Mallory dies Oliphant s section, on the other hand, suddenly devolves into blank verse for no apparent reason at all You re in an adventure political novel, and suddenly it s experimental fiction Who knew So really, it shouldn t surprise you that the same thing happens at the end of the errata Bullshit callback to Mallory s death, a bad pun on some mystical nonsense they threw in that never made sense, and the final line of the novel is an exclamation point centered in the middle of the page, all by itself.
5 Mystical nonsense they threw in that never made sense So 99% of this book is alt history If Babbage had succeeded in building his difference engine, possibly all of these events could have happened Physics and chemistry seem to work the way they should, mysticism is ridiculed, it s all backwards science fiction.
So why, on the last page of Mallory s section, does he suddenly discover Cthuloid beasties which are never mentioned again Also, Oliphant seems to be followed by an All Seeing Eye that I can t figure out It might be a metaphorical reference to the Illuminati or something Or it could be a literal occult eye that he thinks is following him around Not clear So basically, they wrote a cold but brilliant steampunk adventure novel with a problematic structure But then, that seemed too much like selling out After all, neatly tying up the plot threads you laid out in a satisfying way that justifies the amount of effort the characters went to following them is so hackneyed Instead, throwing in mystical mumbo jumbo and replacing the actual climax with a few lines of incoherent, pretentious poetry is so much deeper.
And if you don t like it, well, it wasn t for you You re just not deep enough to appreciate it Go back to your Asimov and stop whining.
The Industrial Revolution Is In Full And Inexorable Swing, Powered By Steam Driven Cybernetic Engines Charles Babbage Perfects His Analytical Engine And The Computer Age Arrives A Century Ahead Of Its Time And Three Extraordinary Characters Race Toward A Rendezvous With History And The Future Sybil Gerard Dishonored Woman And Daughter Of A Luddite Agitator Edward Leviathan Mallory Explorer And Paleontologist Laurence Oliphant Diplomat And Spy Their Adventure Begins With The Discovery Of A Box Of Punched Engine Cards Of Unknown Origin And Purpose Cards Someone Wants Badly Enough To Kill ForPart Detective Story, Part Historical Thriller, The Difference Engine Is The First Collaborative Novel By Two Of The Most Brilliant And Controversial Science Fiction Authors Of Our Time Provocative, Compelling, Intensely Imagined, It Is A Startling Extension Of Gibson S And Sterling S Unique Visions In A New And Totally Unexpected Direction To find the story of The Difference Engine, first dig through a layer of Victorian Era British slang, followed by a layer of alternate history jargon Next, carefully remove a rocky patch of shifting perspectives and unclear motivations After that, you ll be faced with a bloated stratum of physical description so detailed and uninteresting you ll be tempted to speed through it, barely glancing at the muddy mixture while you shovel it out I suggest you give in to this temptation And what s your reward for all this work Well there s some bland technology basic transportation and printing that didn t exist in our version of the 19th century And we get to follow around esteemed paleontologist Edward Mallory as he tours London and blunders into a series of silly, Hollywood style action sequences that clash with the otherwise snail pacing It s too bad the story isn t about ole Ed digging up dinosaurs as he proves quite engaging on the subject for the few paragraphs where he gets to opine on his field of expertise Co authors Gibson and Sterling claim they spent 7 years writing this novel Perhaps they should ve spent time editing each other than piling on literary dirt Or maybe this is simply evidence that sometimes two cooks is too many It hardly matters, we re talking about a Difference without distinction.
I give this two stars because I quite enjoyed the first 50 pages or so Then it was crap from there on out Well, I assume the rest was crap, as I only read another 50 pages of pointless drivel before deciding not to waste any of my precious time It was odd The first 50 pages formed a reasonably complete, self contained, and satisfying short story I don t think those pages were intended to be that way, but they were Then another chapter started with totally different characters that had nothing obvious to do with the first portion Now, that sort of structure by itself is not so uncommon and I enjoy many a book that sport that very look It seems likely that the two stories were intended to intersect someplace down the line But the first portion the satisfying complete story appeared to be over That is, it reached a plausible and satisfying conclusion So I couldn t see it intersecting with anything later on And the other odd thing about this book is that the first portion was well written, while after that it just sucked balls and not even big hairy ones, just boring and pointless ones I believe the book has two co authors and I wonder if one of them is decent and the other one, well, he just sucks balls But I don t know which is which.
Sometimes it really pays to re read a book.
I wasn t very impressed when I first read this book My favorite character at the time vanished with about forty pages left, and I didn t find the end compelling.
I can t remember when I first read the book, but it was years ago Now that I m older and have both read and experienced , I feel I got a lot out of the book I actually found Laurence Oliphant s struggle with his beliefs compelling than Edward Mallory s accidental heroics Although, I have to admit, the moment when a paleontologist became an action hero was quite memorable I also didn t understand the significance of the curious MacGuffin The Modus Had I realized it before, I probably would have been impressed.
When I first read the book, I found the ending confusing and unsatisfying Now, the fact that the end is minor spoiler open ended and leaves a lot open to interpretation just means that you ll spend time thinking about the book after it s over.
All in all, this is definitely a classic of steampunk, and it definitely deserved its Hugo award nomination This book has an amazingly detailed alternate history London with cameos from a number of historical characters, an underground society of clackers steampunk punch card hackers , and an eye opening look at what might have happened if the Information Age started under Queen Victoria.