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The Difference Engine

3.42  ·  Rating details ·  18,606 ratings  ·  1,083 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 - dishonored woman and daughter of a Luddite agitator; Ed ...more
Paperback, 429 pages
Published February 1992 by Spectra Books (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.
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Average rating 3.42  · 
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 ·  18,606 ratings  ·  1,083 reviews


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mark monday
STEAMPUNK SALAD

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

STEP 1
Place Victorian Era in fine-mesh strainer and press dry with paper towels. Transfer to medium bowl and mash with fork until finely flaked.
...more
J.G. Keely
Dec 14, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Scott
Nov 03, 2007 rated it did not like it
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
...more
Kat  Hooper
May 04, 2011 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
...more
Rebecca
Jun 17, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: steampunk, fantasy, ya
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Eli
Jul 24, 2008 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.
Joe
Dec 17, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shelves: book-club
Finding the fun hidden within The Difference Engine requires a major archaeological expedition. First you must dig through a layer of Victorian 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 will confront a bloated stratum of physical description so detailed and uninteresting you'll be tempted to rush through it, barely glancing at the muddy mixture as you shovel it out. I sugg ...more
Mina Villalobos
Jan 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Peter Tillman
Mar 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
The Difference Engine explores a world in which Charles Babbage built a practical mechanical computer in the mid-19th century. Britain is thus going through both the Industrial and Information Revolutions simultaneously. The book combines Sterling's wildman inventiveness with Gibson's brooding, streetwise characters, both shoved back one and a half centuries into an obsessively-detailed and weirdly-transmogrified London of 1855.

Gibson and Sterling explore such topics as dinosaur physiology, Cata
...more
Jim
Jul 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
...more
Ian
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
Kara 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 s
...more
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
...more
Wanda
As many others have pointed out, this book is one of the first in what we now know as the Steampunk genre. It explores the question of what would happen if the Industrial Revolution and the development of the computer had coincided—what would Victorian society have looked like?

It’s a complex novel, with a lot of layers. I read most of it in airports and on planes and didn’t have the best circumstances to be able to concentrate on those details. On the other hand, if it had been really riveting,
...more
Catherine
Jun 20, 2010 rated it did not like it
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
Brooke
Mar 17, 2010 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
Greg Kennedy
Sep 09, 2008 rated it did not like it
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.
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.
Cindy
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 eventually
...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
...more
Alicja
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
...more
Alan
May 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Investigators of steam-punk's smoky, cacophonous origins
Recommended to Alan by: Team and theme, and a temporary shortage of newer things to read
My first college-level computer course was one of the very last keypunching classes taught at my university. By the next term, even we freshmen had been given access to the terminals in the lab—glowing green text on black screens—and those hulking gray machines spitting out stacks of perforated cards fell silent. The first computer I actually owned, not long after that, was a Commodore 64, with a cassette tape drive for storage—you could hear programs as they loaded—but that fast and versatile s ...more
Liz
Apr 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Mike
Feb 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Kaila
About halfway through I said, “I don’t think anything has happened yet.” By the end of the book I said, “I still don’t think anything has happened.” There were many words but none of these seemed to matter. There was a climax in there somewhere and it still felt like nothing had happened.

I did not understand the ending and read the Wikipedia page to figure it out. Turns out, something did happen at the end, but I didn’t understand it. This is not a remark on my own reading comprehension. The end
...more
William
Oct 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A completely marvellous re-history based on Babbage's Difference Engine promoted and pursued by society, and then hooked to steam engines.

Very clever and truly amazing work.
Jason Pettus
Goodreads 2019 Summer Reading Challenge
8. It takes two: Read a coauthored book

THE‌ ‌GREAT‌ ‌COMPLETIST‌ ‌CHALLENGE:‌ ‌In‌ ‌which‌ ‌I‌ ‌revisit‌ ‌older‌ ‌authors‌ ‌and‌ ‌attempt‌ ‌to‌ ‌read‌ every‌ ‌book‌ ‌they‌ ‌ever‌ ‌wrote‌

Currently‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌challenge:‌ ‌Martin‌ ‌Amis‌ |‌ Isaac‌ ‌Asimov's‌ ‌Robot/Empire/Foundation‌ |‌ Margaret‌ Atwood‌ |‌ JG‌ ‌Ballard‌ |‌ Clive‌ ‌Barker‌ |‌ Philip‌ ‌K‌ ‌Dick‌ |‌ Daphne‌ ‌Du‌ ‌Maurier‌ |‌ William‌ ‌Gibson‌ |‌ Michel‌ Houellebecq‌ |‌ John‌ ‌Irving‌ |‌ Kazuo‌
...more
Timothy Boyd
May 01, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I waited a long time to read this book, i kept putting it off. I know it is one of the first cyberpunk/steampunk books and defined that aspect of SiFi. I guess I was afraid it would be to dated now and would disappoint me. Boy was I wrong. It was a great read and deserves its place in the SiFi archives. Very nice fast paced story and good use of historical characters woven throughout the plot. Interesting world and concepts. Don't miss out like I did grab a copy and read it soon as you can. Very ...more
David
Jan 17, 2020 rated it did not like it
TL;DR version: Gibson and Sterling combined their skills to craft an exquisitely detailed world, but failed to come up with a story worthy of the setting.

Ugh! What a disappointment! I should've just abandoned this early on. I kept going with it, hoping that somewhere along the way it would improve, but it didn't. I can't believe that these two put all this effort into creating this world—every, and I do mean every, single detail gets some kind of mention even if it's a list of items on a table o
...more
Mykle
Sep 07, 2012 rated it liked it
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
...more
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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
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