Steampink week: review of the steampunk classic, the Difference Engine
by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
review copy: purchased at Borders, 2009
Set in a Victorian Steampunkish London that takes a turn away from the Tory history of England we know so well, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling offers up a mixture of fantasy, scientific conjecture, with a little romance and mystery to boot, that feels quite different than the usual crop of Science Fiction/Fantasy offerings.
Here we find Dr. Edward Mallory, a renowned paleontologist, who, having lost a battle to save a rather famous damsel in distress—one Ada Byron, the Queen of Engines—finds himself caretaker of the young woman’s cache of punch cards, and with them, in more trouble than he could have expected. Charles Babbage’s card-reading Difference Engine* drives everything in this steam-dependant Byron-led society, and it seems everyone wants to get their hands on the cards in Dr. Mallory’s possession. And so he’s dragged into the middle of the mystery concerning Lady Byron; Charles Babbage, Lord Byron (yes, the Lord Byron) and a host of rebellious Socialist radicals intent on bringing down England’s ruling class. There’s also a reporter on his heels, and his enemies at the Royal Society, who want nothing more than to discredit his theories, and destroy his credibility. There’s even a pretty girl or two caught in the middle; not to mention the murderers and thieves on every corner, just waiting get their hands on those cards, even if it means taking Mallory’s life (and anyone’s who happens to be in the way). And they’re all clamoring about in the horrid stench and fog rising from the stagnant Thames, in a summer about to explode in revolution and chaos.
And over it all is this mystery of the cards, and the Difference Engine, but Mallory doesn’t give a hoot what’s on the cryptic cards and would much prefer to be left alone. He’d rather be back in the Wyoming Territory studying his Land Leviathan, or if he has to be stuck in London, he’d at least like to satisfy his lecture schedule, but no. He can’t find a moment’s peace. So what is our overwhelmed Victorian Paleontologist to do? You’ll have to read The Difference Engine, and see
Intricate, yet dense, elegant, yet gritty, The Difference Engine reads like a well-written tale from the Victorian Era—a Gothic novel in the truest sense of the word. The recreation of London was, in my reading experience, dead on (with some very interesting quirks), and I feel it not too far from something Jules Verne or H.G. Wells could have written. To say I really enjoyed this novel would be an understatement. Yes, at times, it did get a little convoluted . . . Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but at any rate, this is the kind of thing I’d like to see coming off the presses more often! I hope you’ll give Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine a try, and that you will find it as enjoyable as I did.
If you'd like to read this novel, you can probably still get it at the online versions of Barnes and Noble and Borders, or at Amazon (or get it from my Amazon "I recommend" link over there, *points to sidebar*--please?) If all else fails, you can find it at local used bookstores, no doubt.
*A thing that was more or less a room-sized calculator, theorized by Babbage in 1822; what some call the first computer.
***(This review is also housed, and originally published, at my Examiner pages)
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