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Literature / The Difference Engine

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The Difference Engine is a 1990 alternate history novel written collaboratively by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It is a prime example of the steampunk sub-genre, often considered the Genre Popularizer.

It posits a Victorian Britain ca. 1855 in which a great wave of technological and social change has occurred after entrepreneurial inventor Charles Babbage succeeded in his ambition to build a mechanical computer (actually his Analytical Engine rather than the titular Difference Engine). Among the many various changes that arise as a result of this innovation are an even more powerful British Empire, a Divided States of America, an early Communist Revolution in Manhattan led by Karl Marx himself, steam-powered gurneys (this timeline's equivalent of cars), and the premature invention of "camphorated cellulose" (aka celluloid - the first thermoplastic).

The story follows Sybil Gerard, a political courtesan and daughter of an executed Luddite leader (she is borrowed from Benjamin Disraeli's novel Sybil); Edward "Leviathan" Mallory, a paleontologist and explorer who comes into a lot of money thanks to a good bet on an advanced steam gurney model; and Laurence Oliphant, a historical figure with a real career, as portrayed in the book, as a travel writer whose work was 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 camphorated cellulose 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.

Tropes present in this work include:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The very last lines of the book reveal that the narrator has been an AI that just achieved sentience.
  • Adventurer Archaeologist: Mallory is a Gentleman Adventurer Archaeologist. He mentions getting into scrapes with Native Americans while searching for dinosaur bones.
  • Alternate History Wank: Although the Engines and associated steam technologies needed a stronger version of the then nascent British industry to work, the history of the rest of the world is accelerated as through magic, with subtle hints at the 20th century developments:
    • Japan has its own revolution in the early 1850s, transforms overnight into a technological society, and acquires her own Engine (even the Meiji Revolution still took almost 3 decades in Real Life).
    • The Union and Confederacy split 10 years earlier, fight a bloody war and then stay separate, which together with the independence of California and Texas eliminates any chance of America becoming a superpower.
    • Karl Marx raises himself to fame as a philosopher despite having no conditions to breed sponsors and a disenfranchised working class as he witnessed in Real Life.
    • France becomes an Empire at the same moment as in Real Life and they still aim to conquer Mexico, just 10 years too quickly.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Portrayed in-universe, as the Radical Party removed the old aristocratic class from power and eliminated the ancient titles of nobility, replacing all of them with "Lord", be it by birth or by merit.
  • Asshole Victim: The in-universe Duke of Wellington was a tyrant who massacred hundreds and later thousands of his own countrymen, claiming he would destroy "Jacobinism" by all means.
  • Badass Bookworm: Edward Mallory is a celebrated savant paleontologist who is also a skilled boxer and a crack shot with pistol, rifle or machine-gun.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Unlike in our world, when the potato blight struck Ireland the Rad Lords rapidly organized a relief program that saved countless lives; consequentially there was no Irish diaspora or agitation for Home Rule, and it's implied the Emerald Isle would remain a loyal part of the Empire.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: the Eye.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: This version of Ada is a hopeless sex and gaming addict and a bit out of her mind (though she might have been drugged, that part's never explained).
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": To emphasize the alternate history setting, many real-life terms are replaced with similar words using different roots. Hackers are called "clackers." Movie projectors are called "kinotropes." Communists are called Communards. Aerodynamics is called pneumodynamics. etc.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Mallory notes an Awesome, but Impractical 'machine-carbine' which is rather inaccurate; at the end of his story Captain Swing empties a magazine from one at him, only to miss completely and fall to a single aimed shot from Mallory's buffalo rifle.
  • Clockwork Creature: a literal Bamboo Technology automaton from Oliphant's Japanese visitors.
  • Dark Secret: Sybil hints in the final chapter the assassination of the Duke of Wellington had been instrumented by the Rads themselves and performed by the Brotherhood of Sappers and Miners. Cue the said Brotherhood to be the wealthiest workers' guild through the next 2 decades, always getting the best public works contracts and being most leniently treated when they do a strike...
  • Deadly Distant Finale: At the end of Mallory's story, we see him in 1908, retired and full of honors, opening one of two letters. One is from Japan informing him that a branch of a scientific society he helped found had to close due to lack of interest; the other one is from Canada and contains pictures of the newly discovered Cambrian-era fossils of the Burgess Shale. In either case, he dies of an aneurysm (caused by rage or excitement, respectively).
  • Decoy Protagonist: Mick and Sybil
  • Dirty Commies: The Manhattan Commune, led by no one else but Karl Marx.
  • Divided States of America: The CSA became independent, as did Texas, California, and the Manhattan Commune, thanks to Britain playing "divide et impera" with the help of its Engines' predictions.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Edward "Leviathan" Mallory, so named after the dinosaur he discovered. He doesn't much like the nickname.
  • Emperor Scientist: The Merit Lords, including Brunel, Darwin, Babbage and several other famous Victorian scientists.
  • The Ending Changes Everything
  • Fanservice: In-story. The clock Mallory buys has an allegoric depiction of Science, Progress and Britain. The latter is, for some reason, wearing almost nothing. Other examples include the Americans' theater and the artists on Montmartre (described as "dressed... erm, undressed similarly to each other").
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Fellatio, etc.
    • Since it's Victorian England, wearing a skirt so short it shows one's lower leg when she bends over is treated in-story like if she wore a mini-skirt that doesn't cover her panties.
    • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Sterling and Gibson jump from allusions to female scientific (Lady Ada) or craftsman's (seamstresses to Engine-punchers) careers to the fact it was scandalous for an unescorted woman to ride the subway - which is at the same time uncanny and even worse when one thinks of certain Middle Eastern countries...
  • Fictional Political Party: The Industrial Radical Party, who believe in scientific endeavor, industrial progress, and meritocracy, appointing peerages to "savants".
  • Footnote Fever: To let the average writer read the book properly without wondering "Who the hell are those people?!"
  • Forbidden Fruit: The sheer possibility of receiving a fellatio makes Mallory shiver with delight after all the fantasies about it.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The original concept was to see how Cyberpunk themes would work in a historical setting.
  • Government in Exile: Sam Houston is in London after being forced out as President of Texas by a coup and tries to rally support with a kinopticon-heavy multimedia presentation. It turns out he took a chunk of the Texian Treasury with him across the Atlantic, so a Ranger tries to get it back from him after the show.
  • Hand Cannon: Brian's "not exactly regulation" Russian pistol.
  • Historical Domain Character: Numerous real life figures are mentioned or appear in the story such as Charles Babbage, Arthur Wellesley (aka the Duke of Wellington), Lord Byron, Karl Marx, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Darwin, Sam Houston, Percy Bysshe, among others.
  • Homage: Mallory recalls a Hindu water-boy, whom he clearly holds in high regard, from his time in India. It is a good guess that he was named Gunga Din.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Cybil and Hetty, albeit in different ways. Cybil'd been forced into that lifestyle and quit it as soon as she got the chance, Hetty is easy-going, very much enjoys sex (something that almost never happens with prostitutes) and is into prostitution only because it pays okay, unlike singing / dancing / posing which she also dabbles in.
  • Jive Turkey: Sterling and Gibson go to great effort into fitting the British slang of the time into the story, an effort which might have been wasted:
    • "Sand-hog" for an underground construction worker is an American slang word first heard in the 1870s.
    • "Dollymop" for prostitute is a late 19th century word.
    • "Navvy" for road construction worker is a 20th century word, in the 1850s it designated a railway or canal construction worker.
  • Legacy Character: Captain Swing.
  • Logic Bomb: The punch cards that Sybil carries apparently caused severe damage to the French super-Engine project known as the "Grand Napoleon" via some implementation of Godel's incompleteness theorems (which showed up eight decades early).
  • Man Behind the Man: Lord Byron, dashing hero and exceptional public speaker, is uncovered in the appendices after his death as a rather incompetent administrator, pushed and manipulated in a political decision by Lady Annabella Byron, who rants on having to endure "his beastly habits" for decades. Victorian Age being what it was the position brought little profit to her.
  • Moral Myopia: A Crimean veteran notes that they had to take 'harsh measures' in response to the 'ungentlemanly tactics' of the Russians (street fighting and guerrilla warfare) in response to British tactics like firestorms created by concentrated artillery bombardment.
  • Old-Timey Ankle Taboo: Hetty lifts her skirt to show her ankles when Mallory asks; it's treated the same way as a Panty Shot.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The Government claims to be liberal, in practice it holds files on most citizens, blackmails, hangs political opponents and asks from everyone, Mallory included, to declare publicly their allegiance to the party.
  • Point of Divergence: Charles Babbage successfully completing the titular Difference Engine led to many changes in world history such as the political climate of the world and especially technology.
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy: The Japanese quartet love everything Western so much they want to get rid of the Japanese language.
  • Pretty in Mink: Sybil's position is helped shown by her fine clothes, such as her rabbit fur muff.
  • Red Scare: Subverted and ridiculed to death - the speeches of the revolutionary Marquess and Captain Swing himself are deliberately out of touch with reality: no sane man would listen to a Communist-anarchist who owns Black slaves, the working classes would not be interested to support Communism if they have careers to upheld and "brotherhoods" to protect themselves (the supporters of the revolution are mostly thieves and bandits), the idea that "evil capitalists" would gladly shoot human hostages and protect the goods in the warehouse proves to be just as idiotic in-universe as anyone would think, and "the temperance speaker" is a murderer herself.
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman: Lord Byron is Prime Minister. Charles Babbage is another powerful politician. Benjamin Disraeli is most famous for his romance novels (he did write a couple in Real Life, including Sybil from which the Sybil Gerard/Charles Egremont storyline is taken). John Keats is a "kinotrope" artist. Coleridge and Wordsworth are business partners. William Colgate is a lord. Clement Vallandigham, an Ohio politician and notorious Copperhead (anti-Civil War Democrat) who plotted to start a "Northwest Confederacy" of the Ohio River Valley states, is President of the rump USA.
  • Rotating Protagonist: Sybil Gerard, then Edward Mallory, then Laurence Oliphant.
  • Science Marches On / Technology Marches On: invoked Many examples in-story.
  • Schizo Tech: Played realistically. Tom and Brian Mallory built a racing steam-car in the shape of the 1930s streamlined racing cars, but due to the huge fuel consumption of steam engines they needed to take a coal wagon in tow to drive from Sussex to London. Even the most primitive gasoline engines in Real Life only took a couple of gallons of fuel for the same route.
  • Sexual Karma: Kind of. Lord and Lady Byron have BDSM sessions and so on, while Mallory and Hetty had a very romantic night. On the other hand, Mallory's night with a Native American widow is very much Fan Disservice, for himself included.
  • Steampunk: The Trope Maker. Not the very first, but the first notable example.
  • Twice-Told Tale: "Dandy Mick", Sybil and the Charles Egremont storyline are taken from Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil.
  • Unbuilt Trope: A lot of the traditional flavors of Steampunk are not quite present, or given very little attention in contrast to the emphasis on the Values Dissonance of Victorian England.
  • Unperson: Erasing people from the database does more or less that. Subverted in that it's a good thing for some (Sybil started her life anew, for one), though it's still an effective threat for law abiding gentlemen.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Disraeli's romantic stories. Also, whatever lies "Captain Swing" spreaded about Mallory, but that's to compromise his reputation. Also applies the book itself (see below)
  • Wham Line: An off-handed remark in the end of Oliphant's section reveals that his back problems are actually advanced syphilis.
  • What If? ...Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine (and gone on to build the Analytical Engine)?
  • Witch Hunt: The hunt for 'Luddite conspirators' by Charles Egremont.
  • Ye Goode Olde Days: Crossed with Jive Turkey: only "Dandy Mick" and Sybil use the flowery language of the early-Victorian times, known to the modern public from period literature and the speeches of William Gladstone and his peers. Mallory, most male characters from Engine-punchers to lowly workers, Disraeli himself use a language similar to that of modern men.