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Showing 1-10 of 18 reviews(3 star)show all reviews
on March 30, 2003
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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on July 30, 2000
What do I like about the Difference Engine? It's absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the world of the Victorian era would have been like had mechanical computers been perfected in the early 1800s. The detail of the world is wonderful, from the kinescopes (similar to movie or slide projectors) to the pollution, the politics and the stark differences between our own history and what might have been.
What don't I like? Well, there isn't much of a plot. The most involved plot occurs where the book follows Mallory, and through those portions the book is somewhat enjoyable, but it never really gets to the meat. Why are these boxes of punch cards so important? Who wants them and why? What happened to the other elements of the story that got left behind?
The book gets lost along the way, and never really fully recovers. The end comes almost abruptly, just a few incidents that are supposed to wrap things up, but don't. At the very end, absolutely nothing makes sense, and I even reread the end several times to be sure of that; it reminds me a lot of when I watched the end of 2001 (the movie) for the first time, and didn't understand that either--and yet this was worse, for somehow I got the feeling that I was supposed to know what was happening and yet key pieces of the puzzle had been overlooked by the authors. (I suspect this was more Sterling's doing than Gibson's.)
As a curiosity, a look at what might have been, this book merits some attention. As a novel, it's just not so hot, though it has its moments.
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on May 1, 2000
The one thing that struck me the most about this book is that you have to know quite a bit in order to fully appreciate it.
You have to understand something of Victorian culture and technology; you have to understand the significant historic figures of the time; you have to understand the players in the industrial revolution and of the scientific community.
There are no explanations in this book - it is mostly assumed that you have this type of knowledge. If you do not have this knowledge, the meaning and depth of some events will be lost on you (which defeats part of the seeming purpose of the book) - and you will be even more confused as you are immersed in a fictional culture that is, to a point, supposed to already be a bit disorienting.
What this book does well is work as an anthropological treatise. It describes in great detail - one might say EXHAUSTING detail - the routine, day-to-day moments of life in a theoretical culture that could have been.
I was originally drawn to this book because the premise was intriguing: what if the computer revolution had intersected the historic time-line 100 years earlier than it did? As I have stated, this novel presents a plausible and intriguing vision of such an intersection.
Unfortunately, that's almost all it does. There is a purpose to it all - what could be described, in a more low sense, as a hook or "gotcha" at the end of it - but the 400 some odd pages leading up to it weren't an adequate justification for it, in my opinion.
While the ending wasn't intended as "a hook," the episodic, sometimes wandering nature of the main story-line weakened the conclusion's impact. Ultimately, it came across as being far too much labor to go through to arrive at, essentially, the ending of The Wizard of Oz.
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on May 1, 2000
The one thing that struck me the most about this book is that you have to know quite a bit in order to fully appreciate it.
You have to understand something of Victorian culture and technology; you have to understand the significant historic figures of the time; you have to understand the players in the industrial revolution and of the scientific community.
There are no explanations in this book - it is mostly assumed that you have this type of knowledge. If you do not have this knowledge, the meaning and depth of some events will be lost on you (which defeats part of the seeming purpose of the book) - and you will be even more confused as you are immersed in a fictional culture that is, to a point, supposed to already be a bit disorienting.
What this book does well is work as an anthropological treatise. It describes in great detail - one might say EXHAUSTING detail - the routine, day-to-day moments of life in a theoretical culture that could have been.
I was originally drawn to this book because the premise was intriguing: what if the computer revolution had intersected the historic time-line 100 years earlier than it did? As I have stated, this novel presents a plausible and intriguing vision of such an intersection.
Unfortunately, that's almost all it does. There is a purpose to it all - what could be described, in a more low sense, as a hook or "gotcha" at the end of it - but the 400 some odd pages leading up to it weren't an adequate justification for it, in my opinion.
While the ending wasn't intended as "a hook," the episodic, sometimes wandering nature of the main story-line weakened the conclusion's impact. Ultimately, it came across as being far too much labor to go through to arrive at, essentially, the ending of The Wizard of Oz.
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on July 2, 1998
I went to see _Alphaville_ the other night at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. From chatting with people I concluded that the audience was composed both of Godard fans and sci-fi fans. Most of the latter left looking confused and sleepy, which I thought interesting because that movie does everything Gibson and Sterling have claimed to do, and it did it all better in the 60's. Rather than use terminology and special effects that would be obsolete in three years, Godard and his actors created a world almost completely from language.
This book attempts much the same thing - little explanation for the way things work, just acceptance and a vague feeling of horror at the strangeness of a world that _almost_ looks as it should.
All these other reviews of TDE are very funny, crying out for plot, oh plot, where is it? Back to _Alphaville_, we were sitting in the theatre, watching Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina walking down the hotel corridor. Godard cut the sound because there was no mood to convey with music, and nobody was talking. After about ten seconds of this a fellow in front of me shouted 'sound!' and the sound came back in.
Not to say that this is as a book what a Godard film is to movies. But TDE is the one thing close to significant that either Gibson or Sterling have ever published, and when the story doesn't seem to make sense the readers shout out 'plot!' and toss it across the room. Too bad, because the negative reviews I've read seem to come from a place of total ignorance, while the positive reviews here seem equally ignorant of what's been going on for the past forty years, both in high art and pop culture. The readers sit around shouting 'plot! plot!' and when one appears that pleases them, they say 'now this is good,' meanwhile not realizing everything they've missed.
I think that this is the main weakness of this book and others like it. Instead of learning from other writers, Gibson and Sterling have taken what their fans want and rebelled against it, neither pleasing their! fans nor making an impression on other readers, who have seen this stuff all before.
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on December 5, 1997
An enviable array of critical raves lines the first few pages of The Difference Engine, including this one from director Ridley Scott: "A visionary steam-powered heavy metal fantasy! Gibson and Sterling create a high Victorian virtual reality of extraordinary richness and detail."
In this novel Gibson teams up with Bruce Sterling, a brilliant sci-fi writer himself, to provide an amazing picture of Victorian England. Both writers are notable for their attention to detail, and their combined effort teems with thousands of minutiae from the period, not to mention large themes based on the Victorian preoccupation with such things as science, technology, exploration, and steam.
The novel belongs to a particular genre of science fiction called alternate history, where the writer answers the question, if such-and-such had happened (or never happened), what would the world be like now? The Difference Engine tries to imagine what the world would be like if the computer had been invented 100 years earlier. It is set in England in 1855. Sci-fi pundits have dubbed the novel "steampunk" because those who control the steam-driven computers control society.
The structure of the novel falls into three discreet, self-contained units all concerned with a case full of rare and valuable computer cards. In the first part, Sybil Gerard, a fallen woman, inherits the cards from her boyfriend, who was murdered for them. In the long middle section Edward "Leviathan" Mallory, a scientist famous for his discovery of the Brontosaurus, takes charge of them next. And in the conclusion Lawrence Oliphant, a gentleman detective with advanced syphillis, finally solves the mystery of their whereabouts.
Alternate history writers love to recast famous figures in altered roles. The writers have done just that with, for example, three of England's greatest romantic poets. Lord Byron has become prime minister, and Disraeli (the prime minister of the history books) a hack writer. Shelly is some sort of anarchist rebel and Keats has become a kinotropist, a specialist in a sort of gas-illuminated light show of computer designed images. Keats, also, seems to be the only one who knows what the cards signify.
Just to show how far the villains will go to get the computer cards and the power the cards represent, they devise a way to break down all of London's eco system as the city grinds to a halt and falls prey to looters, many of whom join the villains' rebellion: "The gloom of the day was truly extraordinary. It was scarcely noon, but the dome of St. Paul's was shrouded in filthy mist. Great rolling wads of oily fog hid the spires and the giant bannered adverts of Ludgate Hill. Fleet Street was a high-piled clattering chaos, all whip-cracking, steam-snorting, shouting. The women on the pavements crouched under soot-stained parasols and walked half-bent, and men and women alike clutched kerchiefs to their eyes and noses. Men and boys lugged family carpetbags and rubber-handled traveling-cases, their cheery straw boaters already speckled with detritus. A crowded excursion train chugged past on the spidery elevated track of the London, Chatham & Dover, its cloud of cindered exhaust hanging in the sullen air like a banner of filth."
Despite the raves from critics and all the wonderful detail, the novel sometimes dragged for me. As a lover of Victorian England (my graduate specialization), I perhaps should have liked it more, but I found the villain and some of the main characters, including Mallory, uninteresting. I wasn't convinced that things were much different in Gibson's and Sterlings's reality even with the addition of the computer, a noisy, mechanical, affair. The characters might as well have been fighting over an Egyptian mummy for all the difference the computer made. And the long center section with the inevitable Gibson pitched battle (I'm betting my money that Gibson wrote the middle part and Sterling wrote the bookends) didn't thrill me.
Lawrence Oliphant's genteel manners and shrewd detective work make him a fascinating character. The novel might have been more satisfying if he'd been the hero all the way through instead of just the last 100 pages. The experimental conclusion with various bits and pieces from personal journals, letters, advertisements, recordings, and popular songs attempts to tie everything up. But one never has the sense that the cards nor the computers were as important as the writers want us to believe. Did the cards really contain just a mathematical gambling system, as everyone seemed to think, or were they something more ominous and earthshaking? Keats comments that they were far more important than anyone would ever know but doesn't say why. They simply are never satisfactorily explained.
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on July 5, 2000
Bruce Sterling is one of the finest writers working these days, and William Gibson, while something of a one-trick pony, can write a good novel. You would expect THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE to be pretty good. Certainly the concept (alternate history Victoriana with Babbage's machine a reality) is fertile. Sterling and Gibson did their homework (almost too well--the references to Disraeli's books are likely to fall very flat for most readers). The prose is nothing special, but is certainly readable.
And yet the novel doesn't hold together. It's difficult to put a finger on just what's wrong with THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE. The ending is both weak and contrived, but that isn't really the fatal flaw. Somehow, a lot of inventive sound and clever fury adds up to nothing much, and even leaves a slightly distasteful sensation in the reader's mind.
Read Gibson's NEUROMANCER, or pretty much anything by Sterling, and you'll be much better off than you will be reading this book.
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on December 2, 2003
This isn't a bad novel, and I don't think it "drags" as some would have it--there is enough motive force behind the novel (action, plot development) to keep you there, BUT
The main character just isn't particularly interesting and the novel fails to flesh out its alternative history in a way that would make it truly intersting. We get a smattering of the catastrophist/gradualist controversy (derived from SJ Gould is my guess), and Victorian social attitudes and mores get depicted (but not discussed) pretty well.
However, we don't get very much on the difference engines or how the technology interacts with Victorian society or on why Byron would have made a successful prime minister in these circumstances or . . .
Well, we could go on at length as to topics the two novelists might have turned their attention to.
But at the end of the day, not a bad way to spend a few days away from more serious reading.
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on January 10, 2003
It was such a great premise for a book-- what if the Babbage had realized his analytical engine and successfully created computer much earlier in our history? It was also encouraging that two of my favorite writers were involved. Unfortunately, _The Difference Engine_ never really delivers on its astounding amount of promise and the resulting book, while readable, doesn't hold together terribly well.
Three sets of very different characters' lives intersect when they all come in contact with a mysterious box of punch cards. Mix in an alternative history, lady Ada Babbage (with echos of Moorcock's Gloriana), and a staggering richness of detail and you have the book itself.
Unfortunately, it often felt like a huge amount of talent in search of a plot. The detailing was perfect, the characters were great, but the story just never came together.
Too bad.
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on November 5, 1997
The concept of the Victorian era transformed by Babbage engines has really come of age, now that a _real_ Difference Engine has been constructed after Babbage's design. Therefore, I was really excited to get my hands on the book--- and disappointed when I finished devouring it.
Yeah, the concepts were there, and it started out as interesting, but the book soon became a muddled and tiresome exercise in trying to get to the end. Not only was the plot unclear, but the details just bogged down the story (although the story may not be the main point with fiction of this kind). Some cool stuff, definitely-- if you're a fan of the authors, read it-- but it just didn't grab me. I'm relieved to see I wasn't the only one. To be entirely fair to the authors, though, I wasn't up on my 1800's history enough to know what was historical and what was alternate-timeline.
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