Gibson & Sterling: The Difference Engine

June 18, 2019

819+mIobt3L._AC_UL436_ I’m a serious fan of alternate histories; I like to imagine all sorts of ‘what if?’s. Here’s quite a famous one from the early days of steam punk. I’ve read it several times, but not for about ten years so it was time to take another look.

Gibson and Sterling create a convincing and fascinating alternative Victorian Britain deftly though the use of lots of details, in a similar way to how Philip Pullman builds his alternate Oxford in His Dark Materials. The industrial revolution is in full spate, powered by steam, but Charles Babbage’s difference engine has succeeded in permitting computerisation, mass communication and surveillance, again all steam-driven. However, the cost of all this has been a massive increase in pollution: the great stink of real history in Victorian London is far worse here.

Politically the initiative has been seized by radicals who have abolished the aristocracy and established a meritocracy; they are, however, still opposed by anarchists and Luddites, and further afield the territory of the United States has not coalesced into a single nation, but remains a number of smaller states with different interests, and Britain plays for power and influence there, and the statelets are also playing their own games over here. Palaeontology and evolution are at the forefront of contemporary science.

The characters are mostly well-rounded and most of them convince, as does the technology, which is probably the main delight of this yarn – the mechanised transport, card payments, mass surveillance and instant communication of our age translated to the 1850s. Victorian London comes to life as vividly as it does in Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and the central episodes of total anarchy set against the background of pollution are a tour-de-force of nastiness, menace and impending doom: revolution really does seem to be brewing…

It’s a good read, but this time I did find the plotting rather loose and unclear at times, with the action shifting somewhat disjointedly between different locations and groups of characters. Didn’t spoil the story, though.

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