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The Difference Engine (Spectra special editions) Mass Market Paperback – January 1, 1992

3 out of 5 stars 164 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A collaborative novel from the premier cyberpunk authors, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Part detective story, part historical thriller, The Difference Engine takes us not forward but back, to an imagined 1885: the Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven, cybernetic engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine, and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time.

From Publishers Weekly

In a surprising departure from the traditional view of cyberpunk's bleak future, Gibson ( Mona Lisa Overdrive ) and Sterling ( Islands in the Net ) render with elan and colorful detail a scientifically advanced London, circa 1855, where computers ("Engines") have been developed. Fierce summer heat and pollution have driven out the ruling class, and ensuing anarchy allows the subversive, technology-hating Luddites to surface and battle the intellectual elite. Much of the problem centers on a set of perforated cards, once in the possession of an executed Luddite leader's daughter, later in the hands of "Queen of Engines" Ada Byron (daughter of prime minister Lord Byron), finally given to Edward Mallory, a scientist. Mallory, who knows the cards are a gambling device that can be read with a specialized Engine, is soon threatened and libeled by the Luddites, and he and his associates confront the scoundrels in a violent showdown. A sometimes listless pace and limp conclusions that defy the plot's complexity flaw an otherwise visionary, handsomely written, unsentimental tale that convincingly revises the 19th-century Western world. 75,000 first printing; $75,000 ad/promo.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: Spectra special editions
  • Mass Market Paperback: 429 pages
  • Publisher: Spectra (January 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 055329461X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553294613
  • Product Dimensions: 4.6 x 1.2 x 6.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (164 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #992,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Mass Market Paperback
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but I think I have to reveal a little to counter the bad reviews. I hate to think that people who might enjoy this book as much as I did will miss out on it because of what they've read here. If you don't like SF books that aren't tightly character and plot-driven, this one isn't for you. But the book does have a plot, and I think those who say that it's muddled, or ends in mid-story just didn't get it. This book is about the genesis of the first AI in an alternate history, in which the historical leaps in computer technology take place in a post-Napoleonic Britain where meritocracy and rationalism have triumphed over aristocracy.
The authors were not trying to develop this idea by focusing on plot and character and indeed the AI itself is largely absent. The focus is instead on the alternate society from which the AI comes. The authors introduce a number of equally weighted plot elements, which are indeed low-key and inconclusive. But two of these meandering elements of the plot are, by the end, shown to be significant. One involves the invention of a computer system so complex that an unavoidable randomness is introduced into its calculation of data. The other involves the rationalist government's internal security technocrats, who, in the style of their twentieth century counterparts in actual history, base their philosophy on mass information - by trying to construct a database of the personal details of all their citizens.
Far from finishing in mid-story, the book reaches its natural conclusion when these two plot elements are brought together. That last chapter, with the "shadowy character", shows us a point in the future in which the result of their union finally comes to fruition.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
I'm puzzled by the complaint (made by several reviewers below) that the plot threads are never tied up (yes they are, in the final third of the novel) and that we never find out what the mysterious punch cards do (we most certainly do -- see pp. 387, 421, and 429, where we're told EXACTLY what their function is).
This is admittedly a novel that has to be read carefully; one can't just slurp it down like jello without doing any work. It's a serious novel, thank goodness -- not "light entertainment."
I'm also puzzled that nobody seems to have noticed what a highly *political* novel this is. This book is much more about political and cultural ideology than it is about alternative-history technology.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
An enviable array of critical raves lines the first few pages of The Difference Engine, including this one from director Ridley Scott: "A visionary steam-powered heavy metal fantasy! Gibson and Sterling create a high Victorian virtual reality of extraordinary richness and detail."
In this novel Gibson teams up with Bruce Sterling, a brilliant sci-fi writer himself, to provide an amazing picture of Victorian England. Both writers are notable for their attention to detail, and their combined effort teems with thousands of minutiae from the period, not to mention large themes based on the Victorian preoccupation with such things as science, technology, exploration, and steam.
The novel belongs to a particular genre of science fiction called alternate history, where the writer answers the question, if such-and-such had happened (or never happened), what would the world be like now? The Difference Engine tries to imagine what the world would be like if the computer had been invented 100 years earlier. It is set in England in 1855. Sci-fi pundits have dubbed the novel "steampunk" because those who control the steam-driven computers control society.
The structure of the novel falls into three discreet, self-contained units all concerned with a case full of rare and valuable computer cards. In the first part, Sybil Gerard, a fallen woman, inherits the cards from her boyfriend, who was murdered for them. In the long middle section Edward "Leviathan" Mallory, a scientist famous for his discovery of the Brontosaurus, takes charge of them next. And in the conclusion Lawrence Oliphant, a gentleman detective with advanced syphillis, finally solves the mystery of their whereabouts.
Alternate history writers love to recast famous figures in altered roles.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
It was such a great premise for a book-- what if the Babbage had realized his analytical engine and successfully created computer much earlier in our history? It was also encouraging that two of my favorite writers were involved. Unfortunately, _The Difference Engine_ never really delivers on its astounding amount of promise and the resulting book, while readable, does not hold together terribly well.

Three sets of very different lives intersect when they all come in contact with a mysterious box of punch cards. Mix in an alternative history, lady Ada Babbage (with echos of Moorcock's Gloriana), and a staggering richness of detail and you have the book itself.

Unfortunately, it often felt like a huge amount of talent in search of a plot. The detailing was perfect, the characters were great, but the story just never came together.

Too bad.
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