Saturday, January 08, 2011

Book Review: The Difference Engine

Steampunk appeals to me. It plays to my alternative history, 'what if' side. It plays to my sci-fi tech side. It also just seems fun with steam and coal based future tech in the Victorian era. I used to watch "Wild Wild West" blocks on TNT as a kid on weekends. Miguelito Loveless was a steampunk type character, inventing things far ahead of his time, but with 1880s technology. I recently purchased "The Difference Engine" as it is one of the foundation stone books of the genre. I trust Gibson's writing (the other author I did not know), and the reviews were pretty good on various websites. The book does not disappoint.

This novel sets up an interesting universe. What if Charles Babbage had created his analytical/difference engine in the early 1800s? How would the world be different with the computer age arriving a century early? Gibson has a Crichton like touch where he can write technical enough to sound very tech savvy, but also make it understandable and something you could envision in reality. The sociopolitical landscape is very different around the world and in Britain itself. Society has been turned upside down by the rise of the technocrats. The jump in tech with computers (engines) available is a bit odd with the still stumbling advances in the physical and biological sciences. I enjoyed the world they created. I spent two summers at a factory that still used a couple 1970s machines that used punch cards. Reading about punch cards in a 19th century was kind of humorous. I could imagine Victorian era people being ornate with their punch cards. It seemed dangerous and fun, like NYC in the late '70s.

As far as a story and plot, I was a bit miffed. The story has multiple characters that are sort of connected, but the main connection is a set of punch cards that no one truly understands the value of yet seek at all costs. The book felt more like a tour through this universe rather than a concrete story with multiple acts and a really connected story. One could argue that the story is the danger of technology being handed to the wrong people, as the savants and eladers constantly expand the tech capabilities without regard for the human impact. The government itself also uses it to track citizens more and more and occasionally pluck them out of existence. Feels rather important to read in today's world.

I would only recommend this book if you do like sci-fi or have an affinity for things of the Victorian era. The Victorian era values still permeate the book, with people constantly invoking discretion or honor. A modern teen might say, "dis-what, what is that? I can't even spell that". The book was 400+ pages but went by quickly. The Ed Mallory section is especially brisk and action packed during the "Stink". If you are interested in getting into Steampunk, I'd start with this book and pick up other cheap paperbacks of more recent works (Boneshaker and Peshawar Lancers come to mind). This is a fun read, and if you're looking for a beach book in a couple months, try this out.

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