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Thursday, August 03, 2006

cover of The Difference Engine

It's a bad sign when you're 100 pages into a book and feel that it hasn't grabbed a hold of you yet. It is probably an even worse sign when you are fifty pages from the end of the book and still waiting for some piece of information or connection that will make sense of what you've been reading. I experienced both of these sensations as I made my way through the confusing, disorienting world of The Difference Engine. The book is set in an alternate London of the 1800s, a world where Babbage completed his "difference engine" and stared a pneumatic cog-driven computer revolution much earlier than in our history. However, the book never really explains this and only vaguely hints at it near the end of the book; and the true history of Babbage's work is not so familiar to most people as, for instance, Christopher Columbus. Fortunately for me, the blurb on the back cover of the book tells this vital information that made the book slightly less confusing.

Part of the reason I found it difficult to engage with this book is that it jumps around from character to character. There are three main characters, and the book focuses on them in succession (in unequal portions)-- but the connections between them are really rather tenuous. The one connection that is supposed to be the most significant is the set of computer punch cards-- the "modus" developed by the Lady Ada, or perhaps by Mick Radley-- but the authors never fully convey the significance or power of these cards in any way that makes sense of the other characters willing to kill to get the cards.

An interesting book in some ways, but not one I am likely to recommend or to pick up again. Sections of the book are compelling enough, if you are willing to suspend disbelief or authorial-enforced ignorance, but the book as a whole never quite comes together. Another strange device that never made sense-- at the beginning or end of some of the chapter sections (which are labeled as "iterations"), the authors describe some photo or physical artifact-- as if we were examining the evidence from these historical events at some future time. But it isn't done consistently enough to be effective, and it never ties in to anything, so it remains insignificant and odd. There is also an extended encounter with a prostitute that I found unnecessary.

Title:The Difference Engine
Author:William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
Date published:1991
Genre:Science Fiction / Alternate History
Number of pages:429
Notes:recommended long ago by Jeff M.


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