John Carter McKnight's Reviews > The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine by William Gibson
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's review
Jan 28, 2012

really liked it

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, though its rushed and obscure ending is worthy of early Stross.

The realistic vividness of Victorian London - here in the grip of its first killer smog - should be required reading for contemporary steampunk authors: filth, barefoot scavenger children, cheap gin and rampant prostitution is a far cry from the confectionary fantasies of too many authors.

The Difference Engine leaves provocative questions unanswered (or at least obscure to someone of less than razor intellect): Ada Byron is at the center of a whirlwind of conspiracy and sabotage, but remains utterly mysterious and undefined. Chaos is certainly a major theme of the book, but a bit less in the telling of the tale would have gone well.
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