William Gibson
& Bruce Sterling,
The Difference Engine
(Bantam Spectra, 1991)

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's vision of an alternate Victorian London, in The Difference Engine, is a world where early computers are known as Engines and are run by steam and punch cards. The Engines are what keeps society moving and are used in all aspects of life, from helping the police fight crime to entertaining the masses. The authors adroitly make their historical changes in such a way as to never blatantly jump out at the reader. Rather, the differences make total sense within the context of the book. The intertwining of both political and professional intrigues make this book captivating, along with the idea of technology created with no safeguards, and the problems of pollution are made frighteningly obvious.

The book is actually in three sections -- the first section following Sybil Gerard. Daughter of a Luddite organizer, she becomes a prostitute after being "ruined" by a lord and subsequently elevated by a "flash" young man who dubs her "adventuress." She innocently becomes involved in the quest for the Modus, a gambling prediction problem that might actually work but is considered both impossible and apocryphal.

The second section is about Edward Mallory, an archeologist who has recently discovered a brontosaur skeleton in the wilds of Wyoming and has returned to England for its installation in the museum. However, his homecoming is less fruitful than he had hoped. Professional jealousy, combined with the unholy stench caused by pollution and his involvement with the gambling problems of Lady Ada Byron, conspire to make his life much more difficult. Lady Byron entrusts him with a case filled with Engine punch cards and entreats him to keep them safe. The combination of the danger of keeping the punch cards safe and his professional rivalries spill over into his family life. Mallory, however, is up to the task.

The final section features Laurence Oliphant, journalist and possible spy, who seems to know and be involved in everything. His presence ties in the stories of both Sybil and Edward, and the mysterious Modus of Lady Byron. Despite being an ingratiating journalist and somewhat tired spy, Oliphant's skill brings the disparate elements of the book together -- Lady Byron's punch cards, the pollution caused by the steam-driven Engines and the political turmoil -- and completely surprised me.

I enjoyed the book mostly because the society of story is so well drawn and convincing. I believed in that world, though I wouldn't want to live there. The depictions of horses dead in their harnesses because of the poisons in the air were completely believable, and it's fascinating to think of Byron becoming a politician and Shelley his biggest gadfly. The Difference Engine is not an easy read, but worth the effort.

- Rambles
written by Beth Derochea
published 3 July 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.