Book review: The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine.The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been on a bit of a Gibson jag of late, so I figured I’d revisit this, his distinctly non-cyberpunk collaboration with Bruce Sterling. I’d read it a long time ago, and I recalled it fairly fondly, though not too well.

Turns out there was a pretty good reason.

The Difference Engine is a lot like Babbage’s Analytical Engine: very pretty, very shiny, full of manly brass-and-wood details, and ultimately pretty useless. As a novel it’s frustratingly evasive: there’s distinct moments of derring-do and whole chunks of rapid plot development – but it seems to want to spend more time pointing at its setting, hoping the reader notices how clever it is.

Clever it is: this is an excellent example of world-building. If you were to think of the word ‘steampunk’ then the mechanical-computer Victorian period contained here would be pretty close to your imaginings. There’s blimps, computers, a world of brass and steam. It’s a portrait of London both loving and fanciful, pretty and slimy. History has split from our own, and the stories of historical figures – Marx, Disraeli, Byron and more – diverge from their playbooks with excellent abandon. Luddites and savants struggle in a world dedicated to gear miles and the pursuit of knowledge. It’s all science and monocles and things done By The Power Of The Empire.

But beyond this stage-setting, not a lot is good. The characters are largely unlikeable – as a friend of mine puts it, the greatest disappointment of the book is realising all the Men of Science are complete arsehats – and their stories seem to be written piecemeal, with no real eye to making the whole thing hang together. I would tend to assume this is the unhappier side of the collaborative authorial process rather than a solid choice.

Pressingly distasteful is the treatment doled out to women through the work. Gibson knows better – he’s written strong women before, for god’s sake – but here they’re just… bad. Women are either sluts or ditzes, or a combination of both. There’s a distinct feeling of puppetry – they only appear to shunt the story along a little further, with the exception of what could be some of the world’s worst erotic writing. (I’m pretty sure the phrase “tea-rose and cunt” isn’t as languorously evocative as the authors intended, even if they do jam it in a couple of times.)

The end of the book features the birth of the sentient computer – presumably a link with the virtual personalities such a figure of Gibson’s other books – and it’s slightly touching, but not as profound an ending as the authors presumably intended.

I was mystified as to how I’d found this so enthralling the first time around. It must be the world-building, because the story is patchy. Its set-pieces are serviceable, but the whole thing seems to suffer from a lack of planning beyond the “hey, this setting is cool” end of town. I enjoyed rereading it, but was left unsatisfied – the story sort of oozes along until it doesn’t, which isn’t the most reader-exciting method of narration.

C’mon boys, do better.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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