If you pick up a previously unknown (to you) book by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, you would expect it to be science fiction, right? Maybe of the cyber punk variety, but science fiction none the less. Well, it’s not.
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson of Neuromancer and Virtual Light fame, and Bruce Sterling of Schismatrix reknown, is an historical retelling. It is a very interesting and well written work, although the 19th century British lingo is hard to wade through at times for an American girl like me. It does involve a small degree of science fiction in that it assumes the British inventor Charles Babbage successfully completed his Difference Engine, an early computing device, and even his Analytical Engine, which is an actual computer (though nothing like the computers we use today in terms of speed or computational power) and that instead of falling out of favor in the social and political scene, he helped usher in a new era. Based on this framework, the book describes a how the world might have been different, including an Industrial Radical Party in control of Britain. Hmm, the more I talk about it, the more I convince myself it is science fiction. Sort of. My hubby informs me it is steam punk, a new genre which follows the basic tenets of cyber punk but in an historical setting rather than a futuristic one. Moving on.
The Engines are run using cards with holes punched in different patterns, and are developed into a comprehensive system for keeping track of people. All people. Like a social security number, tied to everything a person does from birth, with files on each individual. Now, the cards are the most important part of the process, because they are how “clackers” – people who run the Engines – write new programs to tell the Engines what to do, and how data is compressed and stored.
This is the background. The actual story is more of a thriller/mystery/espionage. A special set of cards with unknown capabilities floats around through the plot, in various hands at various times, with everyone involved willing to kill to have them. There are also political intrigues and regime changes and even a sort of gestapo called Special Branch, which is able to make people disappear by kidnapping them and erasing their number and file, as if they never existed. The authors also manage to work in quite a few real historical figures.
It is a different take on sci fi, but an interesting read if you don’t mind slogging through the British-ese. (I intend no offense to any Brits who might view this post. You might in fact find it an easy read.)