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THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE by William Gibson Kirkus Star


by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

Pub Date: March 4th, 1990
ISBN: 0440423627
Publisher: Bantam

In their first major collaboration, sf heavyweights Gibson and Sterling spin an exquisitely clever filigree of Victorian alternate history, sparkling densely with ideas, moored by a challenging subtext of chaos theory and the lessons of recent paleontology. In London of 1855, Lord Babbage's steam-driven Engines (mechanical computers roughly comparable to Univac) have transformed the world, blueprints thanks to Victorian paradigms of science and order. England's hereditary lords have been replaced by merit-lords (Darwin, Huxley, etc.); Lord Byron's Industrial Radical party rules. Behind the mask of progress, 20th-century crises brew: Babbage Engines and Citizen Numbers are creating a police state; the pollution of a hyper-accelerated industrial revolution makes London sporadically unlivable; political propaganda is deconstructionist. When rising paleontologist Edward Mallory chances into possession of a stability-threatening Engine program (it's Godel's Proof, a theorem demonstrating that mathematical systems can never be consistent), he's thrust into a shadowy world of politics, spies and revolutionaries. With the help of a ames Bondish "dark lantern man" and a dedicated cop, he threads his way through London's demimonde and defeats Captain Swing, a Marxist/Luddite intent on a new social order. Despite the authors' proficiency, their message is perhaps too subtle even for sf readers (a major epiphany is an oblique reference to Stephen J. Gould's Wonderful Life, and thus the random nature of life); mainstream readers will see brilliant extrapolation (the kinotrope is a new art form, motion pictures by way of programmed arrays of changing, clacking tiles), clever details (Disraeli's a Grub Street hack; Shelley's a Luddite exiled to Elba; hackers are called "clackers") and an adequate cops-and-robbers plot, and miss the point completely.