Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Difference Engine

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Gollancz S.F.

Publishers description:
The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time with Charles Babbage's perfection of his Analytical Engine. The Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic Engines, is in full and drastic swing. Great Britain, with her calculating-cannons, steam dreadnoughts, machine-guns and information technology, prepares to better the world's lot . . .

I've not read any Sterling before but for a brief period a few years back i read as much Gibson as i could possibly lay my hands on. As an author I find him to be the consummate world-builder with a nicely pulp sense of plot and pacing. You'll have to excuse me therefore if I over-egg Gibson's role in this collaboration as it's not in my power to be able to separate each participants contributions and role - and I think I probably wouldn't want to even if I could.

This collaborative steampunk novel (probably more correctly described as inter-connected novellas) was an absolute corker from start to almost finish. The picture they paint of a London (indeed a world) changed before it's time by the genius of Charles Babbage is simply awe-inspiring. You can taste the smog and feel the starched collars. The societal (and technological) changes seem purposefully organic. Change is everywhere and it's happening before our eyes - at an accelerated pace obviously as that is the premise of the novel - but it's happening within a logical framework. No leaps of fancy are needed here, there are no robot-police or trans-continental dirigibles, the new technology is transforming society at a pace that we living in the here and now would recognise but which is lightning fast when placed in the context of the novel's Victorian era.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the new technology is in it's embrace by the new government itself in it's pursuit of compiling statistical information regarding the population as a whole thereby firmly rooting the novel in the tradition of British bureaucratic dystopian novels a la 1984 & Brave New World an aspect that becomes increasingly apparent at the novels end.

Unlike much literature in this field the technology isn't the focus here it is to a great extent superfluous. It serves to place the plot in a world unlike our own but one that we can easily empathise and interact with. It is the lot of the people of this world that is - as it should be - the novels focus.
At it's heart there is a relatively straight forward spy / revolutionary / adventurer storyline but orbiting this is a bewildering array of subplots and narratives that occasionally impact upon the main in ways that are not always immediately apparent but have a pivotal role in the overall arc.

It isn't perfect. It's episodic nature leaves it feeling a little jarring at times and the placement of the climactic finale to the simplistic action-romp tale leaves the extended ending feeling a little like an afterthought which is a real shame. It is however a novel that I enjoyed immensely. Unusually for a steampunk novel it felt real, it felt familiar and it felt natural.

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