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The Difference Engine

3.4  ·  Rating Details ·  15,626 Ratings  ·  876 Reviews
1855: 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.  And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history—and the future:
Sybil Gerard—a fallen woman, politician’s tart, daughter of a Luddit
Kindle Edition, 514 pages
Published 2011 by Spectra (first published September 1990)
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David Stuckey I suppose he meant that delving into someone's past, you also find all the problems, feelings and attitudes they had during that time. . . . much the…moreI suppose he meant that delving into someone's past, you also find all the problems, feelings and attitudes they had during that time. . . . much the way that SF from the 1940s is considered unreadable by some due to modern sensibilities being offended by previous attitudes, and probably much the same way that our descendants will find our thinking archaic and disturbing. (less)
David Stuckey K W Jeter's "Infernal devices" is always mentioned in this context.

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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mark monday

3 (5-ounce) cans solid Victorian Era packed in water
1/2 cup minced Bruce Sterling
1/2 cup minced William Gibson
1/4 cup Technological Speculation
1 hard-boiled Spy Thriller, chopped in large pieces
1 soft-boiled Detective Tale, finely minced
3 Major Characters, lukewarm
1 Mysterious Box of Computer Punch Cards
Salt and Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Ambition

Place Victorian Era in fine-mesh strainer and press dry with paper towels. Transfer to medium bowl and mash with fork until finely flaked.
J.G. Keely
My Shakespeare professor was ravishing: clever and ebullient, and never to be found without knee-high leather heels. I drew playbill covers while she lectured, and gave them to her at the end of class. One day I went to her office hours and there they were, all arrayed upon the wall above her desk. Life is the better for beautiful, passionate people.

One day, at the end of class, she beckoned me over: "Are you going to turn your next paper in on time?"

Of course, I answered, non-chalant, with a cr
Nov 03, 2007 Scott rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-fi
Ach, I wish I could recommend this book more highly, but I was very disappointed in it.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, given how much I loved Gibson's "Neuromancer." However, "The Difference Engine" was over-long. The plot threaded together slowly. The character development of central characters was fragmentary and tended toward the superficial. The writing of the action scenes was unbelievably bad - the reader could barely piece together what was happening, and it almost made no sense. T
Kat  Hooper
May 04, 2011 Kat Hooper rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, two major SciFi powerhouses, joined forces to produce The Difference Engine, a classic steampunk novel which was nominated for the 1990 British Science Fiction Award, the 1991 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1992 John W. Campbell Memorial Award and Prix Aurora Award. I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version which was produced in 2010 and read by the always-wonderful Simon Vance.

The Difference Engine takes place in a
Jul 24, 2008 Eli rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people looking for an entry point into steampunk
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 17, 2011 Rebecca rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: steampunk, ya, fantasy
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mina Villalobos
Jan 20, 2009 Mina Villalobos rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who like history, technology, math and good story telling
Shelves: steam-punk
This book is pure brilliance. As all the other Gibson books I have read, the ending kind of.. dissolves into mist, leaving you with questions and giving you a lot of room to imagine and pursue ideas -this being a very positive thing, actually. I think Sterling's style gave Gibson a grounding tug, so the whole ending chapter is about closure, something Gibson doesn't always work well with, but this one made me go back and forth to refresh character, and I had wikipedia open to read the biographie ...more
I give this two stars because I quite enjoyed the first 50 pages or so. Then it was crap from there on out. (Well, I assume the rest was crap, as I only read another 50 pages of pointless drivel before deciding not to waste any more of my precious time.) It was odd. The first 50 pages formed a reasonably complete, self-contained, and satisfying short story. I don't think those pages were intended to be that way, but they were. Then another chapter started with totally different characters that h ...more
Joseph Delaney
This is based upon the idea that computers were invented much earlier in our history. How would that have changed things? This is a big absorbing read.
Sometimes it *really* pays to re-read a book.

I wasn't very impressed when I first read this book. My favorite character at the time vanished with about forty pages left, and I didn't find the end compelling.

I can't remember when I first read the book, but it was years ago. Now that I'm older and have both read more and experienced more, I feel I got a lot more out of the book. I actually found Laurence Oliphant's struggle with his beliefs more compelling than Edward Mallory's accidental heroics.
Ben Babcock
Did you read Neuromancer and say, "This was good, but it could have used more steampunk?" That's kind of how one might describe The Difference Engine: Neuromancer meets steampunk. It's not a comprehensive, completely accurate description, but if that's sufficient for you, you can stop reading now and go read the book.

Still here? Cool.

William Gibson is on my "I must read everything by him!" shelf, and his influence on literature, particularly science fiction and subgenres like cyberpunk and ste
ᴥ Irena ᴥ
I have absolutely no idea how to rate this book. Parts of it are fast-paced and great. And parts are really slow and some are plain boring. Since I am not quite sure and I want to be fair, I'll leave it somewhere in the middle. I did kind of like it, after all.
The book is divided into five parts (iterations) and it takes place in a very dark XIX century London. Everything that happens to the characters in this story somehow ends up connected to a wooden box full of punched Engine cards, but not
rating: 5.5/5

One of my all-time favorites. Originally published in 1990, it predates many of the current steampunk novels and manages to think outside the box of clichés that many modern novels have fallen into.

This novel examines an alternate history in which Charles Babbage builds a ‘difference engine,’ a forerunner of modern computers that runs on steam (it is composed of gears and utilizes punch cards). World history diverges; engines become common changing Victorian England significantly a
Apr 22, 2008 Liz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Alright, so it was a bit of a jolt to my system, as I haven't read anything set before 1900 in quite some time (I KNOW! HORRIBLE!), which is a shame. Once I got over the culture (which was rather disparaging to a variety of people who were not white men) as you have to do with things set in history, I rather enjoyed most of this book. The book is divided between three different main character perspectives, the largest section being given to Dr. Edward Mallory, who is a paleontologist or as they ...more
Dec 17, 2015 Joe rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
To find the story of The Difference Engine, first dig through a layer of Victorian-Era British slang, followed by a layer of alternate-history jargon. Next, carefully remove a rocky patch of shifting perspectives and unclear motivations. After that, you'll be faced with a bloated stratum of physical description so detailed and uninteresting you'll be tempted to speed through it, barely glancing at the muddy mixture while you shovel it out. I suggest you give in to this temptation.

And what's you
Feb 26, 2011 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
"The Difference Engine" ("DGE") was a real surprise after reading previously published books by both authors. (I had probably only read "Islands in the Net" and the "Mirrorshades" collection by Mr. Sterling at this point.) I can't even tell you (and won't cheat and look up) if this book launched the "steampunk" genre (I suspect not), but even if it wasn't the first, this is a book to judge others by.

Forget it's genre or even sub-genre: this is a great book. It has excellent writing, plotting, ch
Sep 09, 2008 Greg rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Yuck yuck yuck. Bad action, bad dialogue, bad characters. The worst of all, though: the world was wonderfully designed, but the plot was so meaningless and boring. What a waste of a grand environment to set such a terrible story.

Some collaborations combine the strengths of all involved into something extraordinary. Others magnify the weaknesses. This is a fine example of the latter.

PS: the ending is the greatest WTF in modern history.
In their first major collaboration, sf heavyweights Gibson and Sterling spin an exquisitely clever filigree of Victorian alternate history, sparkling densely with ideas, moored by a challenging subtext of chaos theory and the lessons of recent paleontology. In London of 1855, Lord Babbage's steam-driven Engines (mechanical computers roughly comparable to Univac) have transformed the world, blueprints thanks to Victorian paradigms of science and order. England's hereditary lords have been replace ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I gave this the old college try, getting to page 155 before giving myself permission to stop. I feel bad because I was supposed to read it for a book club but there are a few reasons it just wasn't for me.

-Info-dumping. I know many steampunk novels suffer this issue, even in such an early work as this, because people who are really into that kind of novel tend to love the geeky intricate details that build this alternative world. I'm just not one of them. It reminded me of Neal Stephenson in Qu
Mar 17, 2010 Brooke rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-fiction, 2012
When I read Neuromancer, I started out not understanding a thing that was going on, but finally made sense of everything by the end. When reading The Difference Engine, I had the opposite experience. The first segment was fully comprehensible, but afterward the book just turned to mush. What in the world happened? Who were all these characters? What was the conflict and what was at stake? Don't ask me, because I haven't a clue. I got more and more irritated as I got closer to the end and had to ...more
Jun 13, 2011 Cindy rated it liked it
Reading this alongside The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron's Daughter.

Also: Lovelace and Babbage! <-- This needs to be a book already!!


2.5 stars. Even then, I'm feeling generous.

This is set firmly an alternate-reality universe. One where Lord Byron and Anabella don't separate, and he eventually becomes Prime Minister. One where Ada lives and can see her first computer programs become reality. One where Wellington becomes a prime minister and is eventua
Sep 07, 2012 Mykle rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I feel slightly hornswoggled: I picked this up as research, to see how Lady Ada Byron Lovelace would be handled as a fictional character. As it turns out she is kept in the background through most of the book -- adored, revered and discussed constantly, but rarely seen. Oh well, buyer beware and all that ... I know it's the founding document of Steampunk and all, but I found it a bit tedious.

The Difference Engine exemplifies the difference between a great idea for a book and an actual great book
Scott Rhee
This is the book that apparently started the whole steam-punk genre, and I can kind of see why steam-punk is so popular.

"The Difference Engine" has a fascinating premise: What if the computer age had happened roughly 100 years before it actually did? Part alternate-history sci-fi and part cyberpunk set in the Victorian era, "The Difference Engine" is a fascinating glimpse at a weird alternate universe that bares more resemblance to the 21st century than I think most of us would care to admit.

Jun 20, 2010 Catherine rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Well, the world-building is quite interesting, though apparently all the female characters in this alternate Steampunk England are whores or math geniuses, with the occasional murderess thrown in for good measure. Every other social or political movement gets accelerated or represented but not the Suffragists, amazingly enough. Apart from that, many of the secondary characters are way more interesting than the protagonist. The plot is a ramble-fest through the world-building and requires a fair ...more
Jan 27, 2013 Koen rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-fi
“The Difference Engine” was one of the books on my list as Must Read. The book is written by two if my favourite writers: Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Both writers played an important role in for me liking Cyberpunk books. This book is one of the first books identified as Steam punk, which is appropriate because the story is situated in Victorian England and plays along the line of the development of steam engines. During the late 80-ties, Steam punk disconnected from Cyberpunk to become a ...more
First things first: I found this book in the Young Adult section of my local library. Not that teens are not capable of appreciating this sort of book, but it's NOT a YA book. Lot's of drinking, sex, prostitution, and complex historical matter. I'd like to have a chat with the library about reclassifying it. We'll see.

The novel was a rich evocation of a Victorian England pushed too soon into industrialism, rife with social uprisings, class conflict, and intrigue. It's part steampunk science fict
John Carter McKnight
The Difference Engine is better read as Great Big Idea SF than as an exemplar of the genre it gave rise to, steampunk. Rather a grim alternate history of a proto-totalitarian Britain run by a government of science and industry and police steam computing, it couldn't be farther from the romanticism of the later genre.

It's very Gibson and Sterling though, painfully prescient in its depiction of the early days of the Panopticon, fiercely intelligent, tamping the worse excesses of both authors, thou
My reaction to The Difference Engine was very similar to Neuromancer, which probably shouldn't surprise me. A fascinating world, with some really absorbing world-building... And then he had to go and add the characters and plot. The only character who really held my interest was dismissed from most of the plot, and the plot itself seemed uncertain as to what it was and what it wanted to be. Gibson is skilled, particularly at world building, but I just can't seem to get absorbed into his books.
Authored by two of the greats of the genre, this steampunk novel has a lot to live up to, something that I fear that it doesn't necessarily achieve. It tells the story of three people whose lives intertwine at different points, alongside a mysterious box of cards, that some people are willing to kill for.

The history in this book deviates from our own in the 1830s, when Charles Babbage perfects his difference engine and then his analytical engine, ushering in the age of computing a hundred years
Sep 05, 2007 Tracey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: to fans of the Victorian era as it might have been; with an interest in computing as well
An alt-history/steampunk tale, we follow three characters from mid 1850's London: Sybil Gerard, a fallen woman with higher aspirations; Edward Mallory, a paleontologist unwillingly embroiled in a political plot; and Laurence Oliphant, a high-class detective. Their common thread is a mysterious box of computer punch cards. None of them is quite sure what program it holds, only that people are willing to kill and die for it.

There are many mentions of contemporary personages - Lady Ada Byron and C
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

William Ford Gibson is an American-Canadian writer who has been called the father of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, having coined the term cyberspace in 1982 and popularized it in his first novel, Neuromancer(1984), which has sold more than 6.5 million copies wor
More about William Gibson...

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“When you raise the dead, they bring their baggage.” 1 likes
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