Did you read Neuromancer and say, "This was good, but it could have used more steampunk?" That's kind of how one might describe The Difference Engine: Neuromancer meets steampunk. It's not a comprehensive, completely accurate description, but if that's sufficient for you, you can stop reading now and go read the book.
Still here? Cool.
William Gibson is on my "I must read everything by him!" shelf, and his influence on literature, particularly science fiction and subgenres like cyberpunk and steampunk, is unquestionable. One might even go so far as to point out how words he coined or popularized, such as cyberspace, have made their way into colloquial parlance. On top that, he's more than just a great writer; he's a good writer, with stories to accompany all those big ideas. Nevertheless, I gave four stars to Neuromancer, and now I'm giving two stars to The Difference Engine. What's wrong with me?
(Although this is a collaboration with Bruce Sterling, I haven't read anything by Sterling yet—he is on the list. So I'll be focusing on how this book affects my impression of William Gibson.)
There's nothing wrong with me! I'm perfect! It's all Gibson's fault. He has this amazing ability to defy my expectations; I never know what I'm going to get from a Gibson story. Despite my best guesses and suppositions, both Neuromancer and The Difference Engine surprised me, and by the end I realized that Gibson had somehow snuck away while I was reading and come back with an extra portion of crazy ideas and subtext to stuff into the last act. So as much as I enjoy and recognize Gibson's skill, I always tend to put down his books dazed and a little bewildered. Sometimes books like that still manage to earn five stars, but very often they receive only four: they left me with respect and a sense of awe, but they did not make me love them.
I don't really want to discuss The Difference Engine as a steampunk novel. Of course, I am aware of its significance to the genre, and the reasons behind that significance are obvious when one reads the book. Gibson and Sterling have essentially laid the ground for the steampunk premise, if you will, of how all the clockwork revolution could take place. Babbage actually manages to complete his analytical engine, which is notable because it is the first design of a computing machine that is Turing complete. This is a big deal, and as with most high-level computer science can get complex rather fast, but here's the gist: if something is Turing complete, then it can in theory be used to solve any computational problem whatsoever. (In practice there are pesky limitations like, say, time.) So Babbage triggers the computing revolution a century early, and Gibson and Sterling doggedly develop the ramifications of this revolution to its logical extremes. Babbage's engines are aggressively analog, not at all the slick and fast electronic and digital devices to which we are accustomed. They are massive and require yards or miles of gears and tape and, yes, punch cards. So time on engines is a precious commodity, and the use of engines brings with it all sorts of logistical problems, such as cleaning and maintenance. Steampunk triggers an irrational sense of ambivalence in me, partly because it always seems to be so garish and flashy: it's got all this cool technology reimagined as neo-Victorian, clockwork gadgets made from gears and pulleys, and it just seems to offend my sense of plausibility. Which is just silly, when you think about it, because I'm willing to read books featuring hyperspace and wormholes and humanoid aliens, so I shouldn't have a problem with steampunk. But we all have our biases, I guess.
But I digress.
So regardless of its steampunk street cred, The Difference Engine is a great piece of alternate history. Gibson and Sterling drop hints at what an alt-Victorian London equipped with Babbage engines could be like, from automated advertising on the side of a building to the surveillance-state-like use of citizen ID numbers. And yes, there are airships (warning: TVTropes). Not only is "Lord Babbage" in a position of considerable influence, but Byron is Prime Minister, and he lives long enough to see his daughter Ada grow up to become an influential mathematician. Darwin gets a title too, and in general The Difference Engine is a thought experiment that speculates what would have happened if a more progressive generation of "rad[ical] lords" had inherited the government from Lord Wellington's Tories.
Britain's role in the history of science is fascinating, and the nineteenth century particularly so. The scientific community was even more of an Old Boys' club than it is now, and so all the various great scientific minds knew each other (or at least knew of each other) through the various Royal Societies. They socialized, stole ideas, had public spats, and generally make that period of the history of science look like some kind of MuchMusic drama. This is great for science writers, because it makes for an entertaining way to tell the history of science, and I love reading accounts like this. Gibson and Sterling embrace this same dramatic flair and make the rivalries and alliances among the nineteenth-century men of science one of the central pillars of the story.
All of this should make for an amazing story. Alas, The Difference Engine falls short of being awesome, and that's particularly fatal when two big names are attached to it. The novel as a whole lacks coherence and unity in its structure and in the narration. Gibson and Sterling connect the lives of three protagonists, but they don't seem in any particular hurry to develop the plot, and the mystery that gets dangled in front of us at the beginning of the book receives a hasty, even token resolution at the very end. As an egregious example of this incoherent style, just consider the first chapter (or "iteration"), which features Sybil Gerard as the protagonist. Sybil is the daughter of a prominent Luddite leader, and since her father's death she has fallen on hard times and become a high-class prostitute. But then she meets up with Mick Radley, secretary to the exiled Texian president Sam Houston. Radley promises her the world if she'll travel with him and become his apprentice, and Sybil, intrigued, agrees.
For the first iteration, Sybil is a compelling protagonist. She's literate and educated and not very naive, but at the same time she is new to the experiences Radley offers (up to and including some acting and theft!). Through her, Gibson and Sterling ease us into their alternate Victorian London. Her vocabulary is memorable but not a distraction from the prose itself. Most importantly, despite her former associations with the Luddites, opposed the sexy technology that has seduced me, I found myself wanting her to succeed. She seemed like a good person, or at least a worthy person. So I was disappointed when, after the end of the first iteration, Sybil gets sidelined for the rest of the book. She returns near the end in a much-reduced role, but she never again takes centre stage to tell her story. The majority of the book falls on the shoulders of Edward Mallory, a paleontologist recently returned from the discovery of brontosaurus in Wisconsin. Mallory is all right as far as characters go, but he's no Sybil, and neither is the third protagonist, Laurence Oliphant. Just as I felt I was getting comfortable with Mallory, Gibson and Sterling switched the focus of the narrative again.
It's much the same for the plot concerning the mysterious Napoleon-gauge punch cards. These first fall into Sybil's possession, and then somehow Ada Byron acquires them, and then they fall into Mallory's hands for safe-keeping. Their purpose is eventually explained, and it's all very clever, but the plot never develops into the mystery I was imagining when I began the book. Instead, the punch cards lurk in the background while Mallory bumbles through a London on the verge of erupting into class warfare. Which is fine, except that I often lost track of what was happening during this time. (To be fair, I read that part while at my nephew's second birthday party, and I had to devote some attention to keeping an eye out for incoming Awkward Social Encounters.)
And then there is the coda, which is brief and very vague. It gives us a glimpse of the future and seems to imply a grim outcome that is consistent with Gibson's skies tuned to a dead TV channel. It's an awesome vision, one that I wish he and Sterling had elaborated upon—but that's the problem. In its present form, it is more non sequitur than anything else. It's a tease without any real substance, and while it fits nicely with the world that Gibson and Sterling have created in The Difference Engine, it does nothing to improve the book as a whole.
I think it is OK for books to be cryptic, for books to end with cryptic epilogues, and for books to puzzle the reader. I can accept not grokking a book, if it's clear the author has done this to challenge me and force me to think about it. And I'm sure there are some people who feel this way about The Difference Engine, that it scattered narration and perplexing plot are what elevate it above newer steampunk works. For me, though, once you strip away the parts that don't work, the elements of this book that seem superfluous or faulty, there is very little left that I can enjoy. There is an alternate Victorian London built upon a very nifty premise; there are secondary characters and allusions to historical figures that tickle the scientist within me. And while I have my misgivings about the story, I really did enjoy the tone and diction, both of which really helped immerse me in the world. Mostly, though, The Difference Engine left me with too many regrets.