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 eventually hated, despite all his previous war heroics. One where scientists and thinkers are revered -- so much so, that they are referred to as "savants." All this hinges on Charles Babbage's Difference Engine #2 and his Analytical Engine being built, and working. In this alternate history, the computer age (or Engine age) develops in Victorian England.
It all sounds great, right? Wrong. It's just not written very well. It's a confusing mish-mash of stories that connect. And, oh gods, the sex scenes. They are atrocious. Sadly, they aren't even so-bad-they-are-funny-again. Just awful cringe-inducing horrors. The action scenes are confused and muddled. And sadly, we only briefly meet Ada Byron, the Queen of Engines. However, there were a few redeeming features.
One star was given because I read this right after reading Ada Byron Lovelace's biography, as mentioned above. Parts of the story were richer knowing the real history this was based on. Gibson and Sterling do an excellent job capturing the essence of Ada's personality. This way they could throw her into their alternative universe, have her only appear briefly, yet she is a strong presence felt through the whole book. As a cameo character she is delightfully complex, amusing, and mysterious.
Half-star to all the steampunk descriptions. This book was steampunk before there was such a thing as steam punk. The Engines sound like complex gears and pneumatic tubes gone out of control. And the weird people who run and control the engines fit right into the world. The ideas seem so plausible.
I read the 20th anniversary edition, which includes an interview with Gibson and Sterling. The last star I am awarding because of revelations that gave me new insight into the book. Both of which I had known before reading the story.
The first one you may consider to be a spoiler. Personally, I don't, but I'm going to hide it behind a spoiler tag for the strictest of spoiler-haters. (view spoiler)[The narrator of the whole book is an Engine itself. This is sort of revealed on the last page of the book. I might have realized it, if I had the energy to think about this mess of a book after finishing it. But I'm grateful Gibson and Sterling mention it in their commentary. It certainly explains a bit of the odd styling in the book. For example, every chapter is an "Iteration." They mention that the Afterword, called the "Modus" is supposed to be the Engine itself breaking down the narrative, so we are left with just clippings from obituaries, newspapers, songs, and letters. Does this explain away the horrendous sex scenes? Not for me. (hide spoiler)] I really wish I had known this before starting the book.
The second revelation in the Gibson and Sterling commentary relates to the the first one above, but isn't a spoiler. What I'm about to tell you is my favorite thing about the book. The whole book was an experiment in how a book is written can be a huge part of the story. It turns out that it took them 7 years to write this book. That means they started it in 1984 - long before the internet, and in the nascent days of personal computers. Gibson and Sterling knew that computers and the first word processors were blowing their electric typewriters out the water. Finally they could cut, paste, and rearrange text like never before. They could share files with a collaborator and they could easily alter the text. So, one author would write a chunk, Fed-Ex the other author the stack of floppy disks, and the collaboration would continue. They had one rule - you couldn't copy and paste text from an earlier version if your collaborator had deleted it. If you wanted it back in, you had to write it from memory. Interesting!
Their idea was that their computers become a Third Person in the collaboration. (And that's how it's related to the somewhat spoilery thing above. Don't you want to click on it now?? Go on, you know you do!) The game-changing nature of technology was new, and it's implementation in a collaboration gave the computer its own "presence" in the story. Like the giant Engines in their alternate world. Very curious idea. I can see how that would be an exciting idea, and true in the late-80s. But today? The concept falls flat.
But Kudos to them for experimenting!
Long live the Queen of the Engines!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
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