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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Meat, not gruel
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...
Published on June 20 2004 by Roderick T. Long

versus
3.0 out of 5 stars nice plan, but huh?
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...
Published on March 30 2003 by M. Browning


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Meat, not gruel, June 20 2004
By 
Roderick T. Long (Auburn, AL USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A complex alternate history, March 2 2004
By 
Garrett J. Menning (Albuquerque, NM) - See all my reviews
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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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3.0 out of 5 stars nice plan, but huh?, March 30 2003
By 
M. Browning (the D.C. 'burbs, USA) - See all my reviews
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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1.0 out of 5 stars Huh?, Feb. 5 2003
By 
wysewomon "wysewomon" (Paonia, CO United States) - See all my reviews
Okay, right now I'm on a cyberpunk kick and I picked this book up at the library because the premise sounded interesting: what if the computer ("Engine" in the book lingo) had been invented in the nineteenth century? And what if the government of England had been taken over by and Industrial Radical party that essentially made the industrial revolution more so?
Well, after reading the book I still don't feel like I had any answer to those questions. In fact, I don't really feel like this book had any cohesion at all. Essentially what we have here is three novellas, each with a different central character. But other than a mysterious box of punch cards which each of them at one time or another possesses, there isn't any throughline. There are tantalising bits of plot here and there, but none of it seems to go anywhere or make any sense. And the box of cards has no impact; everyone's out to get it, but why? Who knows what it does? Why should we care?
Characters appear and disappear with infuriating randomness -- just when you think something's going to happen, Oops! that's the end of that bit and no we're somewhere else. Conspiracies are hinted at but then they just vanish or become unimportant with no explanation. I kept waiting for all the threads to come together and knock me over the head with significance, but that never happened.
Some of the alternate reality stuff was interesting, but there just wasn't enough backstory to make it relevant. All in all, the book left me with the feeling of "What the heck was that about?" If the writers knew, I wish they had seen fit to share.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Gave me chills, Sept. 12 2002
By 
Adrian Bell (Kumamoto, Japan) - See all my reviews
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. What happened in between the end of the story and this future point we can easily extrapolate, and is surplus to the authors' requirements. Reading that last chapter gave me chills and I thought about it for days afterwards.
The plot of this book is as devastating and brilliant as any SF book I've ever read, but the authors slip it in under the radar and hide it behind their wonderful evocation of their alternate society, which would make worthwhile reading just by itself. If you don't like stories that aren't tightly focused, don't read it. But otherwise, take my five-star review seriously and try to get hold of this one.
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2.0 out of 5 stars the unfinished book, July 2 2002
By A Customer
Years ago, in the days of the starving artist, I guess, writers wrote whole books, sent the finished product to publishers who either published or didn't.
Unfortunately these days, writers send off a few chapters to the publishers and get a huge advance. After they get paid, they see the whole thing in an entirely different light to quote Groucho Marx in "Room Service". Often the end is NOT nearly as GOOD AS THE BEGINING! (Roger Zelazny was famous for starting books, getting advances and not finishing them).
Briefly, there IS a plot in Difference Engine! It's one of the most tantalizingly interesting (and frustrating) alternate history books I've ever read, as far as it goes.(did you know that 19th century English "dollymops" wore shoes with brass high-heels? presumeable to avoid round heels when walking the street??) BUT IT STOPS in the middle of the book, leaving plot lines and the ending completely unresolved. The authors just lost interest, introducing and blaming a shadowy character at the end who isn't really in the book at all.
Be forwarned.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Difference Engine Review, Nov. 30 2001
By 
Cam Shepherd (Western Ilinois University) - See all my reviews
At first, readers of the Difference Engine may be taken in by the fact that two cyberpunk juggernauts co-authored it. But the fact is that the book is a unique gem. The combination of William Gibson's knack for prosaic similes and metaphors (i.e. Nueromancer) and Bruce Sterling's ability to craft odd, yet quality characters (Heavy Weather), tackles entirely uncharted cyberpunk territory.
The magic of the Difference Engine lies between its words. It sparkles in its finely detailed Victorian setting, where primitive computers contain a database of the public and punch cards are used to wheeze out countless sheets of printout information. Its magic, for example, is reflected through the kinotrope machines that provide visual aid to public speaker Sam Houston in a presentation to the Whitechapel public of London.
Co-authors Gibson and Sterling pepper the book with subtle parallels to modern society; so subtle they can easily be overlooked or misread. Gibson and Sterling, besides creating an extremely precise and detailed historical setting, come close to losing the reader in Victorian jargon. But the two counteract the momentously detailed setting with modern social commentary, such as observations on big corporation and privacy in high-tech societies, and a knack for edging forth the reader with well-placed plot twists.
Furthering its peculiarity, a technical diversity about the book is its organization. It is distributed over five "iterations" and concluded with a "modus." The sections do not have chapters, rather cuts in the story that allow for something similar to a play's scene change where you can put the book down and go to the store. I found no trouble with this style and noticed Gibson uses the same "cuts" in Nueromancer.
The Difference Engine is such a broad book, in terms of the Aristotelian approach to drama, that I point-out several books in its likeness. Caleb Carr's the Alienist is similar in ways of both its historical setting and its detailed detective story. John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, with its anti-government Vietnam era stance, compares in terms of social parallel and awareness.
Gibson and Sterling avoid any laboring style changes and stagnant stage stealing and end up with a cohesive and inimitable alternate history.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Steampunk screams, July 5 2001
By 
D. Koepsell - See all my reviews
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Indeed, this is the first of an unfortunately limited genre. Gibson and Sterling do a very entertaining and informative job of showing us the Victorian era's industrial mastery. The story, unfortunately, comes unraveled a bit. Nonetheless, the prose is engaging and the story premise quite brilliant. It focuses on the question of "what would have happened if computation had been successfully realized in a mechanical medium first?" This is an excellent premise for philosophical and historical speculation. It forces us to focus on the prejudices we tend to uphold regarding electronic computation. Those prejudices are nicely bent by this book. Moreover, it serves as a nice little history lesson about the true origins of computers and the very first programming language, which just happens to have actually been partially developed by Lady Ada Byron, Lord Byron's (the poet) wife and mathematical prodigy in her own right.
I would love to read more works in this genre. Recently, there has been a renewal of interest surrounding the accomplishments of the Victorian era, and we should all keep in mind the spirit of possibility emodied by the Victorians. This is a good book to read in conjunction with Neal Stephenson's _The Diamond Age_, which I will also review.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The genesis of steam punk?, May 4 2001
By 
I acquired a copy of this book almost immediately after it was published, partly because I'm an avid fan of alternate histories and partly because I was an acquaintance of Bruce Sterling, one of the cofounders of cyberpunk. That is, I knew him to talk to because he was an Austinite and always came to ArmadilloCon, and he sort of knew who I was (though he made no pretense of remembering my name each year). He was pleased to sign my copy -- and changed the copyright date on the title page to 1855!

And why do I especially like this book? It's the first instance I remember of what soon came to be known as "steam-punk." A technology-based yarn, but with Victorian techno, not computers. Not exactly. There are three principal characters here: Sybil Gerard, daughter of Walter Gerard, the great Luddite agitator and orator; Dr. Edward Mallory, dinosaur-hunter, afficionado of steam-gurneys, and stalwart of the Industrial Radical Party; and Laurence Oliphant, who pretends to be only a somewhat adventuresome journalist-cum-diplomat but who is actually a top intelligence operative and handler for Her Majesty's government. And then there's Inspector Fraser, part of the very Special Branch, as well as a number of nicely realized supporting characters.

But, of course, the story is really about the world of 1855 in which Charles Babbage was very successful in developing his mechanical computer, a marvelous Engine (always capitalized here) of wheels and rods and gears and punch cards that has put Britain well on top of things, and the government in many ways well on top of its citizens. The plot device that gets things going is the theft of a box of punched Engine cards, the purpose of which is never quite divulged -- though we know the program they contain is Important. It's all a great deal of fun in the Idea-as-Hero tradition. Gibson and Sterling (mostly the latter, I think) have definitely got the feel of the times and the city of London, immersing the reader in authentic jargon and cant, but without casting you adrift.

Frankly, I don't understand the antipathy of the other reviewers. It's a pretty good story and most people I know personally, even those who aren't big Gibson fans, liked it. In fact, my only real complaint is in an area where Gibson's hand definitely shows, and that's the ending of the book. Actually, it doesn't really end; it just stops, and with a bit of Gibsonian mysticism regarding the set of cards thrown in.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not the best of either, but very thought provoking, May 3 2001
By 
E. Scoles (rochester ny usa) - See all my reviews
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There's a convention in SF, honored perhaps more in the breach than in practice, that goes back to H.G. Wells: A good story _changes one thing_, and then extrapolates from there.
That convention is most relevent in the "alternate history" sub-genre. As the "hardest" of the first-wave cyberpunks, an SF fan has to expect that Gibson and Sterling would honor that core convention. So the greatest mystery of this book, for most of its length, is to figure out what the devil that one change _is_.
Since I believe I've done that -- and it's by no means obvious -- I won't spoil the fun. But I will say that it looks like much better SF once you do figure that out.
The book has many flaws, most traceable to the dual-authorship. The writing is uneven -- neither Sterling nor Gibson are chameleons, and they don't do much here to approach a common style. Characterization is uneven because, though it's a strong suit for both writers, they handle it quite differently, and seem to have different visions of the characters.
But even at its worst, this is a good novel; and it's one of the most finely realized and plausible alternative histories I've ever read.
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The Difference Engine: Deluxe Boxed Edition
The Difference Engine: Deluxe Boxed Edition by William Gibson (Hardcover - April 1 1991)
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