The Difference Engine

By William Gibson

Rating: 3 stars

Authored by two of the greats of the genre, this steampunk novel has a lot to live up to, something that I fear that it doesn’t necessarily achieve. It tells the story of three people whose lives intertwine at different points, alongside a mysterious box of cards, that some people are willing to kill for.

The history in this book deviates from our own in the 1830s, when Charles Babbage perfects his difference engine and then his analytical engine, ushering in the age of computing a hundred years early.

The world-building is flawless. Never infodumping, but it drip-feeds you enough information about this world, with Lord Byron as Prime Minister, and its Time of Troubles, after which a meritocracy rose in Britain, sweeping aside the old order, but I’m not convinced by the story itself. The box of cards (a program for one of the Engines of the title), is pretty much a macguffin, and the explanation of what it is, right at the end of the book, is a bit of a let-down, to be honest.

Of the three protagonists, Sybil Gerard is possibly the most interesting, although the least developed. Daughter of a noted Luddite, she starts the book as a fallen woman, finding herself being drawn into these affairs through one her politician gentlemen. Her story is then dropped and only picked up again sort of sideways, through the eyes of Laurence Oliphant, diplomat, spy and another of our protagonists.

Our third protagonist, Edward Mallory, gets the lion’s share of the narrative, coping through the Great Stink and trying to find the shadowy group who are trying to steal the box of cards that he has in his possession. This is possibly the least satisfying aspect of the story. The group chasing Mallory is never clearly defined, nor are their goals, and the final showdown with them, feels underwhelming.

So a fun romp through a well-realised steampunk world, which effortlessly mixes historical characters with invented ones, but one in which the story doesn’t entirely come together for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553294613
Publisher: Spectra Books
Year of publication: 1990

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