Sunday, September 26, 2004

Vive La Difference!

If it's a given that there are sudden leaps in evolution, what would have happened if the human race embarked upon the technological revolution a century earlier than was the case? That's the central 'what if?' premise to The Difference Engine the original steampunk potboiler from 1990 co-written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which depicts a Victorian era where Babbage completed his punchcard-operated Analytical Engine and the industrial and technological revolutions are running on parallel lines in turbulent times under the shrewd stewardship of Prime Minister Byron.

Gibson and Sterling mix fictionalised versions of real-life people from history (including Percy Bysshe Shelley as a wild-eyed terrorist) and characters purloined from Benjamin Disraeli's paperbacks to present this surreal distortion of a bygone era where various factions battle over precious data compression secrets. Not all of it works: the book is a little longer than strictly necessary, some will find the 'enigmatic' ending a little frustrating and it's probably students of scientific history and mechanical gadgets who will no doubt get the most from all the fascinating details. Having said that, there's enough violent action scenes, lusty bodice-ripping and shadowy conspiracies to keep the average reader entertained amidst the education and spirited speculation.

The Difference Dictionary is a handy, spoiler-free, online glossary of terms and references used within the novel.


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