6 Rated Books 8 Rated Books Book Reviews Steampunk Week

Steampunk Week – Book Review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Title: The Difference Engine

Author: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Genre: Science Fiction / Steampunk

Publisher: Spectra (US) / Gollancz (UK)
Publication Date: 1992 / 1996 (First published: 1990)
Paperback: 448 pages / 384 pages

The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time with Charles Babbage’s perfection of his Analytical Engine. The Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic Engines, is in full and drastic swing. Great Britain, with her calculating-cannons, steam dreamnoughts, machine-guns and information technology, prepares to better the world’s lot . . .

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

Why did I read the book: It appears in every single Steampunk Essentials lists and one of the best examples of Steampunk. I just had to read it.

How did I get the book: Bought


The Difference Engine seems to be universally praised as one of the core Steampunk titles and it makes pretty much every single list I came across whilst reading about the genre in preparation for this week. Since this is hailed as required reading for anyone interested in Steampunk, I obediently added it to my reading list.

Thus, here I stand after reading a seminal work of Steampunk, completely conflicted about the novel.

The novel is set in 1855 but an alternate 1855 where British inventor Charles Babbage actually succeeded with his idea of a Difference Engine – an early computer. This alternate world is mostly a consequence of this invention with all of its political, economical and sociological implications and the authors use real life figures as well as literary characters to inhabit their world and to live their story. Thus, Britain is a much more powerful potency who is at peace with France (and Manhattan is a communist island led by Karl Marx) ; Lord Byron (perhaps the alternate bit that was harder for me to believe in) is the Prime Minister of an England led by the Radical Party (or Rads) , with computers being mass-produced and there are even hackers or “clankers” in this world.

But this is only the setting and it is obliquely referred to in the course of the novel. There is hardly any info dump about what happened before 1855 and how things came to be – the reader must catch up as the story proceeds. And no, the book is not about the Difference Engine per se – at all.

Centre stage is a story divided in three parts with three main characters: Sybil Gerard, a prostitute and daughter of an infamous Lud leader ; Edward Mallory, a “savant” , a palaeontologist; and Laurence Oliphant, travel writer to cover his work as spy – the three of them are linked by a set of computer Punch Cards which change hands throughout the book and almost makes it a mystery novel – what are they? What are they for? Who do they really belong to?

Almost because, it is clear that the punch cards are not the point of the novel – just like the Difference Engine.

Rather, the novel it is a tour de force about the possible consequences of engine’s creation and as such it is an interesting, even fascinating read. However, this is mostly done subtly in the background, submerged in threads, in the recounting of the day-to-day life as the characters walk around sometimes talking to themselves as the narrator describes their surroundings. Mallory, for example who often muses about how the dinosaurs were extinct , but also about his role in dealing with political problems in America and his economical situation. He is caught in the middle of the overarching plot that brings together everything in the book, including the Great Stink and the last of Luddites rebels resurfacing in London but perhaps not as tightly as many would certainly prefer.

My conflict about the novel stems from two points. One, the fact that if one goes into the book blind, ie without any knowledge about its setting or any historical knowledge about England and France circa 19th century chances are, one will be inevitably lost or reaching for Wikipedia every two pages or so (as was my case).

The second point is that even though, intellectually I can certainly appreciate the genius of the idea and the premise, as well as the mind-blowing effort of bringing together that many characters and events together in an interesting and certainly fascinating manner, I will just be honest and admit that I was bored out of my mind for most part of novel and I had zero emotional connection with any of the characters. The most interesting ones were Sybil and Oliphant and their chapters were the best ones, however they were also, the shortest part of the novel and the Mallory chapters dragged and dragged and dragged. I never read anything else by either author but I am almost sure that one wrote the Sybil/Oliphant parts and the other wrote the Mallory one – I just can’t pinpoint which.

To conclude, I am happy to have read the novel, I think it was a worthwhile experience which I hope never to experience again. Even if the ending was superb : a one letter word. One word and I was like, OMFG, genius. But then I remembered the Mallory parts.

BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK? Oh yes. It is the most quintessential Steampunk I read this week. It is the perfect balance of all its classic elements, but is not an easy ride.

Notable Quotes/ Parts: The moment it really hit home to me, that this was indeed an alternate history more than anything else in the book:

Up Knightsbridge and past Hyde Park Corner to the Napoleon Arch, a gift from Louis Napoleon to commemorate the Anglo-French Entente.

The fact that there the famous Wellington Arch is NOT there because Wellington was considered a tyrant in this England made me jump out of my pants.

Additional Thoughts: It is impossible to read this book without checking some facts online – at least it was for me. The most fascinating of those to me: the computer punch cards that were mentioned several times.

According to Wikipedia, punched cards

is a piece of stiff paper that contains digital information represented by the presence or absence of holes in predefined positions. Now almost an obsolete recording medium, punched cards were widely used throughout the 19th century for controlling textile looms and in the late 19th and early 20th century for operating fairground organs and related instruments. They were used through the 20th century in unit record machines for input, processing, and data storage. Early digital computers used punched cards as the primary medium for input of both computer programs and data, with offline data entry on key punch machines

But that is not what makes it fascinating to me. It is the process of discovery.

For example: Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the Jacquard Loom. This loom is controlled by those punched cards with punched holes , each row corresponding to a row in the design – this simplifies the process of manufacturing textiles.

Now, here is the deal:

The Jacquard loom was the first machine to use punch cards to control a sequence of operations. Although it did no computation based on them, it is considered an important step in the history of computing hardware. The ability to change the pattern of the loom’s weave by simply changing cards was an important conceptual precursor to the development of computer programming. Specifically, Charles Babbage planned to use cards to store programs in his Analytical engine.

How amazing. Don’t you just love science?

Verdict: This epitome of Steampunk is a difficult read with some very rewarding parts if you stick to it – I recommend it – with reservations – for fans of the genre.

Rating: /strong> This is a most difficult question. I will have to be conflicted about this as well.

8 – Excellent : For its undeniable contribution to the genre and the sheer genius of the Big Idea behind it. The plotting and the amount of history that goes into this is mind-blowing.

6 – Good : Because in spite of all the above, the book can drag and only a couple of the characters are really minimally interesting and moving (although one can argue that this is not a book about characters – to which I will reply, ergo why I didn’t really care for it) .

Reading next: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest


  • KMont
    March 11, 2010 at 6:42 am

    I could hear the snores throughout your review. Not that your review was boring, cuz it wasn’t at all, but the effect the book had rather. Yeah, I never ever felt very inspired to read this one whenever I’d come across it. I suppose it does deserve the nod for steampunk pioneer-ship, but it’s not inspiring a fun aspect in me for the genre. Meh.

  • Ana
    March 11, 2010 at 6:45 am

    Nope, “fun” is most certainly not a word I would use to describe this book. 😀

  • Neil Ford
    March 11, 2010 at 8:13 am

    You should definitely read some of Gibson’s other books. A personal favourite is Pattern Recognition, which is more thriller than speculative fiction. Most people would say read Neuromancer, one of the seminal cyberpunk books.

    With regards to The Difference Engine, I started reading it last year but haven’t finished it yet. Like you, I’ve found it slow going and haven’t been enthused to finish it quickly. Interesting to seem I’m not alone.

    – Neil.

  • Moonsanity
    March 11, 2010 at 8:18 am

    This is the type of book I would need to build up to before reading it. I know this will seem off topic, but I really do have a point. 🙄 I’ve read almost all of Tom Clancy’s earlier books when HE was still writing them. My dad was a fan, and gave them to me. I love his characters and the action. The military tech stuff-not so much. I would “skim” those parts to get to the good stuff. I think I would end up doing this with The Difference Engine. OR I would end up reading it more like a text book-learning along the way, and like you, end up online wanting to understand it better. Is this a bad thing? No, I guess not, because when we stop learning, we stop living. Does this make sense?

  • TDF Pamela
    March 11, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Great review. Gibson is definitely a tough read, and though I haven’t gotten to any of the Sterling on my bookcase yet, I’m guessing he’s the same. Gibson has the habit of dropping you into his worlds and leaving you to figure things out as you go along, and while that’s sometimes frustrating, I actually find that I appreciate the lack of infodumps and background information. I’m hoping he does it because he wants the reader to think hard and pay attention and not just because he’s lazy, lol. China Miéville does the same sort of thing.

    One of these days, I’ll have to get around to reading this book. I’ll just be sure to keep Wikipedia close at hand.

  • Estara
    March 11, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Because it fits this book review subject so well and because Charles Babbage can be full of action (and in case readers missed the link on the steampunk discussion post):

    Let me link all of you again to Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace do Victorian Steampunk action webcomic:2D Goggles

  • Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
    March 12, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    I want to read this now, if only to share in the experience. I know very little about the history you mentioned; I’ll probably be very confused…

  • Paul Magrs
    March 18, 2010 at 4:58 am

    I’ve just written about this excellent review on my blog. I really enjoyed Steampunk week. It’s helping me orient myself in this nebulous genre…


  • Casey
    February 1, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Thanks for mentioning Jacquard and the use of punched cards for data storage.

    I must ask, again making reference to WikiPedia, has anyone considered fluidic computing as a plausible computing platform for the Victorian age? I first read of it back in the 1960s, as a possible means of building radiation proof computers, for the cold war. There were articles in Scientific American and Popular Science. Then, in engineering school, one professor harped on fluidic computers as a lost opportunity, bigger than Babbage’s analytical engine. According to the prof, if fluidics had been developed as soon as practical, we could have had programmable, general purpose digital computers as early as 1920, or possibly earlier. Data storage on punched cards had been around for decades, but the innovation of fluidic logic would make possible general purpose CPUs, constructed from arrays of fluidic flip flops and fast fluidic memory.


    Do you think it possible? Another case of failure of strategic vision? Might we ask, what technology is available nowadays, but not fully appreciated?

  • Casey
    July 24, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Here’s more info, with diagrams, describing the several different designs of fluidic flip-flops and amplifiers. The journalist claims that in 1967, you could purchase a fluidics bread-board kit from Corning Glass Works.

  • Terry
    November 2, 2011 at 6:03 am

    I just finished it too and was very bored throughout. I kept waiting for something exciting to happen and nothing did. I don’t need everything wrapped up but at least provide some climax to the novel. I’m not a literary review person but I was disappointed with this to say the least.

    I bought it 4 years ago and started it then but after 100 pages had to put it down b/c I just couldn’t get into it. B/c I commute now I have hours on the train so I could read it fairly quick. Even then it was hard.

    That said, I liked the universe that they created and would like to read more stories in that setting.

  • T Dl
    November 24, 2012 at 3:35 am

    I read this when it came out, so not out of duty to SP as it now exists, but just as a novel piece of writting, and a novel way of producing a novel. At the time coverage was as much about how this book was written (alternating chapters passing back and forth between the authors They were not allowed to revise the other’s work) as it was about the book. I enjoyed the idea of a parallel history, that did not include many of the inventions that defined the world that is, but none the less a world that had progressed.

    I enjoyed the book, but I do remember that it was not perfect, but rather excused the book on the basis that there were limits in the method in which it was written.

    We did not have Wiki back then, or really any personal computers that functioned as they do as entertainment and communication devices. The internet was commercialized in 95. Not sure looking every reference up on wiki as one reads is necessary,

  • Steve Hanscomb
    January 24, 2019 at 11:01 am

    I finished The Difference Engine a couple of days ago. My friend bought it for me as a Christmas present as it is one of his favourite books.
    I must say, I really enjoyed it, to the point where I came to the conclusion towards the end that it should be twice the length.
    First of all, I work in central London, so all of the areas that most of the book are based are familiar to me. As are the characters for the most part, which gave it a familiarity of a sort that made me feel almost at home in the book.
    But it is the wealth of sheer detail that made me love the book. I could feel myself there and reading it was an absolutely immersive experience.
    I really find it hard to see how some comments I’ve read about the book can be about the same book that I read. For me, the build up to the action was key to these parts, not simply dull filler. The fact that some characters are revisited, some dropped, seems a brave and real construct.
    I will read this book again in a few books time and look forward to it. I’ll also have a read of ‘Pattern Recognition’, another Gibson book that has been recommended to me.

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