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The Difference Engine Paperback – Jul 26 2011

2.8 out of 5 stars 83 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Spectra; 20 Anv edition (July 26 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0440423627
  • ISBN-13: 978-0440423621
  • Product Dimensions: 13.9 x 2.7 x 20.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 408 g
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars 83 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #100,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From Amazon

A collaborative novel from the premier cyberpunk authors, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Part detective story, part historical thriller, The Difference Engine takes us not forward but back, to an imagined 1885: the Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven, cybernetic engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine, and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In a surprising departure from the traditional view of cyberpunk's bleak future, Gibson ( Mona Lisa Overdrive ) and Sterling ( Islands in the Net ) render with elan and colorful detail a scientifically advanced London, circa 1855, where computers ("Engines") have been developed. Fierce summer heat and pollution have driven out the ruling class, and ensuing anarchy allows the subversive, technology-hating Luddites to surface and battle the intellectual elite. Much of the problem centers on a set of perforated cards, once in the possession of an executed Luddite leader's daughter, later in the hands of "Queen of Engines" Ada Byron (daughter of prime minister Lord Byron), finally given to Edward Mallory, a scientist. Mallory, who knows the cards are a gambling device that can be read with a specialized Engine, is soon threatened and libeled by the Luddites, and he and his associates confront the scoundrels in a violent showdown. A sometimes listless pace and limp conclusions that defy the plot's complexity flaw an otherwise visionary, handsomely written, unsentimental tale that convincingly revises the 19th-century Western world. 75,000 first printing; $75,000 ad/promo.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Format: Mass Market Paperback
I'm puzzled by the complaint (made by several reviewers below) that the plot threads are never tied up (yes they are, in the final third of the novel) and that we never find out what the mysterious punch cards do (we most certainly do -- see pp. 387, 421, and 429, where we're told EXACTLY what their function is).
This is admittedly a novel that has to be read carefully; one can't just slurp it down like jello without doing any work. It's a serious novel, thank goodness -- not "light entertainment."
I'm also puzzled that nobody seems to have noticed what a highly *political* novel this is. This book is much more about political and cultural ideology than it is about alternative-history technology.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
The Difference Engine reflects the creative synergy of two great cyberpunk pioneers, Gibson and Sterling. It is a difficult and complex novel, based on the premise that Charles Babbage's eponymous mechanical computer is actually developed for practical use using steam power in the Victorian Age, ushering in the Information Revolution a century early. The authors manage to convincingly evoke a Victorian otherworld that is both hauntingly familiar and yet dramatically different from our own past. England is ruled by technocrats and scientists (known as savants) who battle Luddite terrorists; the United States are far from united, rent between the Republic of Texas, the Confederate South, and the Marxist Manhattan Commune. Gibson and Sterling utilize this fascinating background to great advantage, using a colorful cast of characters (including famous historic figures like Sam Houston and Lord Byron in roles a little different from those in our own history books) to explore such weighty themes as evolution and natural selection; technology, surveillance and social control; AI; and the science of chaos and complexity.
I'm sure I did not fully grasp all the implications or understand all the intricate plotlines in this rare treasure; it will definitely repay rereading. But I'm sure that thoughtful fans of Gibson and Sterling--especially those with some knowledge of 19th century England--will enjoy this book as much as I did. It may well be regarded as an SF masterpiece with time. On the other hand, readers who require straightforward, linear plotting and who find ambiguity irritating will certainly do best to skip this novel.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
i really like reading gibson. usually, it's kind of like running a marathon: it's harder than hell to get to the end, but ultimately rewarding. this one was both an easier read than i expect gibson to be (of course, he had help writing this one) and not as rewarding in the end.
set in victorian england, 'the difference engine' is an alternate history: what would have been changed had charles babbage's mechanical computer been a practical reality? i VERY STRONGLY reccomend that the person interested in reading this book do some research on the times and concepts before starting this book. you will get a lot more out of it if you know what's going on before you start. this is probably one of the worst failings of the book: while the background is richly detailed (there is a wealth of victorian slang, social moires, and lifestyle), the basic concept of what the hell a difference engine even is is never explained.
the story is apparently about a mysterious series of computer punch cards falling into the hands of a series of characters. the characters have only loose connections with each other, and once the story moves on to the next character, the plot threads are left dangling open for the previous one. just what exactly the punch cards do is never revealed, so the ending of the book feels rather anti-climactic.
the concepts and ideas are interesting, but basically the tale never goes anywhere. you keep reading, hoping that there is a point to be made, but the whole thing just kind of fizzles out. "steampunk" is a fun and original idea, it just doesn't completely work here.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but I think I have to reveal a little to counter the bad reviews. I hate to think that people who might enjoy this book as much as I did will miss out on it because of what they've read here. If you don't like SF books that aren't tightly character and plot-driven, this one isn't for you. But the book does have a plot, and I think those who say that it's muddled, or ends in mid-story just didn't get it. This book is about the genesis of the first AI in an alternate history, in which the historical leaps in computer technology take place in a post-Napoleonic Britain where meritocracy and rationalism have triumphed over aristocracy.
The authors were not trying to develop this idea by focusing on plot and character and indeed the AI itself is largely absent. The focus is instead on the alternate society from which the AI comes. The authors introduce a number of equally weighted plot elements, which are indeed low-key and inconclusive. But two of these meandering elements of the plot are, by the end, shown to be significant. One involves the invention of a computer system so complex that an unavoidable randomness is introduced into its calculation of data. The other involves the rationalist government's internal security technocrats, who, in the style of their twentieth century counterparts in actual history, base their philosophy on mass information - by trying to construct a database of the personal details of all their citizens.
Far from finishing in mid-story, the book reaches its natural conclusion when these two plot elements are brought together. That last chapter, with the "shadowy character", shows us a point in the future in which the result of their union finally comes to fruition.
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