Review: The Difference Engine

[This review has been slightly edited for clarity and to add a spoiler warning. –AW]

Gibson, William
Sterling, Bruce
The Difference Engine
Bantam Books
New York
April 1991
ISBN 0-553-07028-2
429 pp.
hardback, US$19.95

This book explores the world of England in 1855 assuming that Babbage had produced a successful "Difference Engine." Babbage and his followers rule England and Engines are an everyday part of life. Engines are used by the police, credit card companies and artists to drive kinotropes, a mechanical cross between a TV and a scoreboard. "Clackers" are striving to write the ultimate program, the "Modus." This world is also populated by criminals, spies and politicians, all at odds with one another. The novel explores pollution, love, spying, invasion of privacy, anarchy, sex, science, art and programming.

The book is very good at exploring this interesting world. Yet I was dissatisfied. There does not seem to be a clear narrative voice, no driving plot to move the action forward. Characters and events come and go, concepts are introduced and dropped, ideas explored and then abandoned. There is a metaphysical? ending that does not satisfy. Maybe I am old-fashioned and just like a nice direct story line, but I could not see where this book was going.

[small spoiler warning]

At the close of the book Lady Ada (of the ADA language fame) discusses the "Modus." This was most facinating and I wish that this aspect had been more fully explored in the novel.

All in all a good but ultimately unsatisfying exploration of a world that came very close to being. I recommend the book with some reservation.

James T. Stover

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