The Difference Engine

From Academic Kids

The Difference Engine is an alternate history novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It is a prime example of the steampunk sub-genre.

The novel posits a Victorian England in which the Industrial Radical party, led by a longer-lived Lord Byron, took power and in which inventor Charles Babbage succeeded in his ambition to build a mechanical digital computer (actually his analytical engine rather than the eponymous difference engine). Following this success, these massive computers have been mass-produced, and their use emulates the innovations which actually occurred during the information technology and Internet revolutions. The novel explores the social consequences of having such a revolution a century before its time.

The action of the story follows Sybil Gerard, a politician's tart and daughter of an executed Luddite leader; Edward "Leviathan" Mallory, a paleontologist and explorer; and Laurence Oliphant, an historical figure whose (very real) career as a travel writer is, on Gibson's Victorian earth, merely a cover for espionage activities "undertaken in the service of her majesty". Linking all their stories is the trail of a mysterious set of reportedly very powerful computer punch cards and the individuals fighting to obtain them. As is the case with special objects in several novels by Gibson, the punch cards are to some extent a MacGuffin.

In the novel, the British Empire is more powerful than it ever reached in the height of the real British Empire thanks to the power of extremely advanced steam driven technology ranging from computers to airships. Britain opened Japan to Western trade rather than the United States, in part because the United States has broken apart into several smaller nations, the United States, the Confederate States, the Republic of Texas, and a Communist commune in Manhattan. Among other historical characters, the novel features Texan President Sam Houston.

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de:Die Differenzmaschine

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