By A Customer
The novel belongs to a particular genre of science fiction called alternate history, where the writer answers the question, if such-and-such had happened (or never happened), what would the world be like now? The Difference Engine tries to imagine what the world would be like if the computer had been invented 100 years earlier. It is set in England in 1855. Sci-fi pundits have dubbed the novel "steampunk" because those who control the steam-driven computers control society.
The structure of the novel falls into three discreet, self-contained units all concerned with a case full of rare and valuable computer cards. In the first part, Sybil Gerard, a fallen woman, inherits the cards from her boyfriend, who was murdered for them. In the long middle section Edward "Leviathan" Mallory, a scientist famous for his discovery of the Brontosaurus, takes charge of them next. And in the conclusion Lawrence Oliphant, a gentleman detective with advanced syphilis, finally solves the mystery of their whereabouts.
Despite the raves from critics and all the wonderful detail, the novel sometimes dragged for me. As a lover of Victorian England (my graduate specialization), I perhaps should have liked it more, but I found the villain and some of the main characters, including Mallory, uninteresting. I wasn't convinced that things were much different in Gibson's and Sterlings's reality even with the addition of the computer, a noisy, mechanical, affair. The characters might as well have been fighting over an Egyptian mummy for all the difference the computer made. And the long center section with the inevitable Gibson pitched battle (I'm betting my money that Gibson wrote the middle part and Sterling wrote the bookends) didn't thrill me.
I wanted to love it., January 10, 2003
By frumiousb "frumiousb" (Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
It was such a great premise for a book--what if the Babbage had realized his analytical engine and successfully created computer much earlier in our history? It was also encouraging that two of my favorite writers were involved. Unfortunately, _The Difference Engine_ never really delivers on its astounding amount of promise and the resulting book, while readable, does not hold together terribly well.
Three sets of very different lives intersect when they all come in contact with a mysterious box of punch cards. Mix in an alternative history, lady Ada Babbage (with echos of Moorcock's Gloriana), and a staggering richness of detail and you have the book itself.
Unfortunately, it often felt like a huge amount of talent in search of a plot. The detailing was perfect, the characters were great, but the story just never came together.
I found the first section too confusing and the last section too esoteric. The middle section was pure action/adventure, using the altered landscape only as a colorful backdrop. I would've preferred less scurrying to and fro and more insight into how the computer changed the world.
I think The Difference Engine would've worked better with one central character who experienced everything. Or perhaps with a whole cast of characters like a typical Harry Turtledove novel. Having three more-or-less equal characters was an unsatisfactory compromise.
The Difference Engine had enough ideas that it could've been great. I'd give it something like an 8.5 for the premise and a 6.5 for the execution. Resulting rating: 7.5 of 10.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.