March 4, 2016

So Much Promise Missed: The Difference Engine by Sterling and Gibson



This book is pretty uneven, but I suppose that comes from two authors mailing floppy disks back and forth to each other.
The world that they build is pretty interesting, and it seems that that was the basis of more of the conversations between Gibson and Sterling (I have to confess, I’ve only read like three previous Gibson books, and none of Sterling’s full-length books. I think that though they are still working writers, there’s a very 80s sense of their being, maybe like the Bright Lights Big City guy or the American Psycho guy (Yes, I know their names.)).

There are several characters in this world where some tech is advanced and the US is divided between several nations – more like Europe now than the US is now. And there’s some stuff happening about luddites fighting back and breaking down the computerized government set in motion by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (and many of the Eminent Victorians make an appearance).

I don’t know who invented steampunk, but this one has the fun hallmarks of the genre – tech, Victorian London, fun anachronisms…. Is this the start? Here’s the real thing though. You need interesting characters doing interesting things to make a 500-page book readable. For me, there was a lot of stuttering, and the real interesting part of the narrative spanned pages 200-400 approximately. The narrative starts to break down at the end, and I was really close to abandoning the book in the last section, but I figured that there has been ok stuff going on until that point so maybe there is going to be some pay off. There was no payoff.

It turns out the authors were trying to convey that the book was unraveling because it was being written by the computer in the book. It wasn’t obvious to me. I regret the time I spent finishing it up, hoping in vain that there would be something worthwhile. There was nothing. It could have been edited to its core and been a quality instrument. As is, there is too much chaff.