Ever since I got heavily into Steampunk during my time at college, The Difference Engine has been one of the books that constantly comes up as one of the genre’s forerunners, something that everyone interested in Steampunk should read. So, when I actually got round to reading it, I was really looking forward to getting sucked into a world of adventure, fantastical science and bright hopes for the future.
I really should have kept Gibson and Sterling’s background in Cyberpunk more in mind. This wasn’t the bastion of optimism that I had been expecting, given the values of the genre. No, this was focused very much on the “-punk” part of the genre’s name, set in a world of great progress and ingenuity that is hampered by class wars. Admittedly not as grim as many cyberpunk novels and films that I’ve seen, but it was still something of a shock. The main action follows three main viewpoint characters. The first is Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a former Luddite politician who has fallen on hard times in the years since his death. The second is Edward Mallory, a palaeontologist at the peak of his career after discovering a complete dinosaur skeleton. And finally, there is Laurence Oliphant, a journalist/spy based on a historical figure of the same name. The thing that bring these three people together is a set of punch cards that have been attracting significant attention due to their association with Lady Ada Byron, though no-one seems to have any real idea of their contents. I personally found it very hard to get through this, simply because the plot was so slow and circuitous. So many names and events turned up over the course of the novel that it was hard to keep track of when someone returned in the narrative; as such, I’m sure that there were events that should have seemed more significant, but weren’t in my mind. And at the end of it all, I still had to consult Wikipedia to find out what those damn punch cards actually contained, as the reference that the narrative makes is somewhat outside of my sphere of knowledge. So would I recommend this? Yes and no.
Okay, so on the side of yes, I would say that if you’re interested in the technological and political history of the Victorian era, the history of the Internet age and modern Science, then this will be utterly fascinating to you. I can only lay claim to these in passing, so there was a lot of content that completely passed me by, probably to my detriment. Despite this, even I found the world that Gibson and Sterling had created to be utterly fascinating. If you’re looking for a completely comprehensive world that is simultaneously familiar to us as Victorian Britain and yet alien and weirdly advanced, then you can’t go wrong here.
On the side of no, it does meander quite a bit in its quest to follow the path of these punch cards, and can lead into sections that feel both pointless and kind of uncomfortable. Much as I am sure that a character would be reasonably sure to get drunk and stay with a prostitute overnight in the course of their life at that point, I am equally sure that I do not want to see said encounter. It seemed like it needed slimming down, especially in Edward Mallory’s section of the narrative; I was honestly wondering whether it would ever end at some points.
Overall, it very much depends what you’re looking for when it comes to novels. If you’re looking for world-building and a more critical examination of the Victorian era and the Steampunk genre, then I’m sure that you’ll get on with The Difference Engine like a house on fire. If you’re looking for something a bit faster paced and the more optimistic side of Steampunk, then I would perhaps look elsewhere. I can appreciate both types, but I think that this might have been aimed at someone perhaps more intellectual than me, so I can’t help but feel that I missed out on a lot. 3.5/5
Next review: River of Gods by Ian McDonald