>Science Fiction: “The Difference Engine”

“The Difference Engine” is an alternate history written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I wanted to read this book for a while, and I did not realize that it was originally published 20 years ago.  The book describes mid 19th century London, after Lord Babbage’s Difference Engines had become the information processing technology. The story revolves around three different characters, Sybil Gerard, Edward Mallory and Laurence Oliphant.

The stories of these characters touch a little throughout the book, and they revolve around a mysterious box of punch cards which apparently contain some software build by Ada Byron – the Queen of Engines.

This atmosphere and the setting of this book is very much in the current Steam Punk vein, although the book preceded the current Steam Punk movement.

I do enjoy reading alternate histories at times, especially in this case it was fun to imagine what the world might be like if Charles Babbage’s engines came into wide use (here is a video of a model built in modern times). In the book, the age of steam and engines is not that pleasant. The authors talk a bit about the pollution in mid 19th century London – and chunk of the action occurs during a summer episode of “The Stink” in hot London. Remember in those times raw sewage just emptied into the Thames River.

I thought the world imagined by the authors was the strongest part of this book, along with the language they came up around the technology.  For example the Engine operators were called “clackers” and the moving picture presentation was called a “kinoscope”.

The plot was little weaker, although there were murders and riots and fights, all along with a mcguffin – Ada’s box of punched cards. In the end the meaning of those cards is indirectly revealed – although you will have to read the book yourself. I don’t want to give away the answer.


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