After reading some preliminary steampunk in the form of Mainspring and Escapement (which is also called “clockpunk”), I thought I’d better go back to some of the old masters. And you can’t do better than Gibson really.

Next on the list is Harrisons’ A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! the tone of which pretty much sums up The Difference Engine. The bulk of the novel is devoted to a palaeontologist surnamed Mallory who accidentally finds himself embroiled in a scandal, one that threatens the very state of Great Britain itself! This requires ample supply of huckle buff and the wearing of proper gentlemanly attire! And the exclamation of near but all sentences in an indignant tone!

In other words, great fun.

The premise of the novel is the discovery of steam-driven computing power during the industrial revolution. This leads to a world sharply diverging from our version of history, one in which the USA becomes a socialist power, and Britain and France firm allies. One could go on!

What I found most interesting about the novel was the nesting of Mallory’s story within a broader narrative of the difference engine itself. Mallory’s story is in effect an escapade, and one that only provides character to the alternative London. I’m unsure whether Gibson or Sterling wrote the Mallory character, but the sandwiching of the tale within the tale works fairly well, but provides something of a diversion from what is otherwise a fairly esoteric tale of an attempt to create a self-aware artificial intelligence.

You can be certain both authors had a tremendous amount of fun writing this one.

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