The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is arguably the most famous piece of first-wave steampunk literature. In interacting with steampunk fans though, I find that it is oft-tried, but not necessarily finished. Even when finished, it is not always a favorite. And yet, it is often hailed as the best example of steampunk as a genre.

The quality of the writing is undeniable:
Her attention is fixed upon the sky, upon a silhouette of vast and irresistible grace—metal, in her lifetime, having taught itself to fly. In advance of that magnificence, tiny unmanned aeroplanes dip and skirl against the red horizon. Like starlings, Sybil thinks.
The airship’s lights, square golden windows, hint at human warmth. Effortlessly, with the incomparable grace of organic function, she imagines a distant music there, the music of London: the passengers promenade, they drink, they flirt, perhaps they dance. (1)
The juxtaposition of unmanned machine and human warmth is presented immediately to the reader. It will remain a common theme throughout, with the human warmth fighting for prominence of the reader’s attention.

I have read reviews complaining of the near-total absence of the Difference Engine itself, of the lack of action present in Gibson’s Matrix series, or of the way in which the narrative jumps its focus. I think these readers missed the point: the title of The Difference Engine refers to this alternate history’s moment of the break, namely the creation of a working computer by Charles Babbage 100 years before it happened in actual history. Everything about the setting and events is dominated by the ubiquity of the difference made by the Difference Engine. Victorian London was bad, but it was never this bad. But Gibson and Sterling aren’t interested in the Engine itself. They’re interested in the difference it has made in the lives of their characters. Everything we learn about the Engine, we learn obliquely, at least, until the appendix-like fragments at the end of the book. Until then, we are seeing a very different world through familiar eyes.

We have Sybil Gerard, the hooker with the heart of gold, Edward Mallory, adventurous explorer and academic (sans bullwhip, but willing to dive into the fray nonetheless), and Laurence Oliphant, the only historical figure of these three, who hides his work as a spy behind his work as a travel writer: fairly ordinary people for a work of science fiction., especially steampunk. Not one mad scientist, aeronaut, pirate, or bonafide rebel in the bunch.

Like Pynchon’s Against the Day, The Difference Engine seems to be asking, what would it really look like if…? In this case, if the computer had been a de facto reality of Victorian life. The book is often lauded—rightly so—for its gritty realism. The brief mention of the airship on that first page is about as high flying as this book ever gets. But again, this is why I resist the idea of steampunk as a sub-genre. The Difference Engine isn’t really even science fiction – it seems utterly unconcerned with explaining how the Difference Engine works. It is a piece of speculative fiction, speculating on the ramifications of a Difference Engine, not an expository schematic for one. In addition, it’s a bit of a detective/espionage novel, drawing parallels with Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday in my own mind. So perhaps it is a steampunked detective story, complete with femme fatale and noir elements.

One of The Difference Engine’s greatest strengths is how immersive the sense of verisimilitude is. I resisted the urge to go and cross-index character names on Wikipedia to discover their historical realities, because I wanted to buy into the one presented by Gibson and Sterling. Having read through it once, I’m convinced it wouldn’t make a bad approach to a second reading, which is why I’m glad for The Difference Dictionary.
It certainly follows the idea of punk as an approach to writing. Albeit nowhere near as non-linear as some postmodern writing has become, their disregard for a single narrative revolving around one character was a bold approach, especially given the high-adventure approach to steampunk by their peers, Powers, Blaylock, and Jeter, conspicuously absent from The Difference Engine. Sure, there’s a moment of gunplay, but for the most part, the novel plods along at a grinding pace. It’s a difficult read, albeit a rewarding one. I would agree with the makers of the Difference Dictionary who have called it a puzzle box. There’s a level on which it works for a first read, but I’m pretty sure that, like Pynchon, a second, closer read will merit some new discoveries.

For the time being, I will end by returning to the contrast of the human with the machine, warning my readers that spoilers lie ahead. To be honest, knowing the ending doesn’t ruin the reading. There’s no surprise ending to ruin, especially if you’ve read Gibson’s Matrix series. The journey of the characters is the thing here, of human flesh and blood in a world become increasingly machine-driven. A consistent theme throughout the book is the idea of extinction. Edward Mallory is a paleontologist, and so he often muses on the extinction of the dinosaurs. One of the major set pieces of the book takes place during a “major episode of pollution in which London swelters under an inversion layer (comparable to the London Smog of December 1952)” (wikipedia). The world is thrown into a darkness of pollution 100 years earlier, like the sun-obscuring black cloud—the cause of which is debated as well—conjectured to have brought about the end of the dinosaurs.

Further, at the end of the book, the reader is given a description of London in 1991 that reads like the opening crawl for a steampunk Blade Runner.
Ten thousand towers, the cyclonic hum of a trillion twisting gears, all air gone earthquake-dark in a mist of oil, in the fractioned heat of intermeshing wheels. Black seamless pavements, uncounted tributary rivulets for the frantic travels of the punched-out lace of data, the ghosts of history loosed in this hot shining necropolis. Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye.” (428)
Clearly, the future is not so bright you have to wear brass goggles. It is a future when the Difference Engine seems to have become self-aware, and humans are only conduits for the machine to see through, to use as avatars. Humankind becomes extinct to make way for the next form of life – the machine. Not an original idea, but definitely done in a very original, dare I say steampunk, way.


  1. I have to come out of the closet and admit that I'm one of the people who started but couldn't finish it. The first chapter alone was practically unreadable and, with life being short, I couldn't see it being worth the slog.

  2. Cory, you are among friends. The first time I tried, I failed as well. I think the only reason I got through this time is that I figure I need to have the early steampunk works read before I write my field papers.

  3. I recently re-read it and found I'd taken in very little the first time round. But that was before I developed a taste for Victoriana and Steampunk. This time I savoured every detail and revelled in the deeply descriptive style. Every surface and texture came alive and I could almost hear the engines clacking and smell the grease. Equipped with my newly found love of steam-tech and Victorian construction materials I was able to immerse myself in the book. And that's probably the best way to enjoy it. If you want fast-paced action and a page-turning plot this isn't the book for you.

    As I understood it the description of London in 1991 is revealed to be in fact the internal workings of a later version of the Babbage computer and not London after all. The highly visual description plays with our expectations of scale and succinctly summarises the progression of miniaturisation that must have occurred. No humans live among the towers as they are in fact the glass fronted computing mechanisms of a greatly-miniaturised analytical engine, and the roads are conduits for relaying information between nodes. The description of paper-like faces being donned and discarded is fascinating and bizarre and I had to wrestle with it for a while before accepting that it was evocative of an artificial, alien mind on a journey towards self-awareness and couldn't be easily understood in terms of human experience. I don't think it was describing humans used as avatars. This was the stuff of thought within the engine's developing mind.

  4. When you say Gibson's 'matrix series', which books are you pointing to? Series-wise, I only know of the 'sprawl' and 'bridge' trilogies - although when I first read them they didn't even carry that titulation (I think I just created a neologism).

  5. The Sprawl trilogy Tim - it's sometimes referred to as the Matrix trilogy (the "other" one!).

  6. That sounds like a definite marketing ploy post-Matrix success heh. Which is fine - the more people that read Gibson (one of my primary cultural heroes) the better.

  7. I'm starting my third read of The Difference Engine at present, but the first in a decade. I read it the moment the original paperback hit the shelves; I was a huge fan of Gibson's Neuromancer and its sequels, but in those days I could rarely afford to spring for a hardcover. I read it again in grad school, having read Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil feeling the need to go back and look at the way G&S re-envisioned Dizzy. I'm about to start it again with the idea of an article/chapter in a neoVictorian project I'm beginning to think through. I'll have to say -- I really love this book. I can understand why Steampunk fans who are more interested in the aesthetic or in adventure stories generally wouldn't take to it; as someone who's studied the Victorian era I find it satisfying in all kinds of ways.

  8. Chelseagirl, I'm encouraged to hear you're considering writing something academic about this book. I think it's a book that deserves close attention. Make sure and check out the Difference Dictionary link in the post. It's a great resource, although I suspect you may not need it!

    I'm assuming you've read Steffen Hantke's article:
    Hantke, Steffen. "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk." Extrapolation (Kent State University Press) 40.3 (1999): 244-254.

  9. It's really an amazing book. I read it through the first time, just because I had to know what happens––there were characters I wanted to live, to die, things I wanted to see fixed.

  10. I am currently doing my dissertation on this book and two others. This book, putting aside all its Victoriana and detail (if that's possible!) is fascinating to look at structurally and to consider the intentions of the two authors when you reach the end of the novel. I will be looking at history and postmodernity, and seeing Difference as a reflection on Cyberpunk, and some postcolonial readings of Morcoock and Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. there's quite an interesting chapter looking at cause and effect in Difference in a book by Karen Hellekson: 'The alternate history: refiguring historical time', if you haven't already found it.

    Awesome blog, with some very useful information for me to make a start with my dissertation. All the best!


  11. Liz - I love Hellekson's work on Alternate History, but thanks for the reference all the same. It's a reminder to get her stuff on the secondary sources page. I agree that it's a reflection/reaction to Cyberpunk - it's a decidedly Gibson-esque book, and I don't really take the approach that it fits well with where steampunk ended up going, although it's been hugely influential in a number of writers' world-building.

  12. hi, i'm studying aesthetics and comparative literature in europe, and found your blog on the net searching for anything about steampunk - i'm writing my thesis on it, but the local scholars are not very productive in the subject:) could you give me an e-mail address? i'd be glad to give you details, and even more glad to get some help from you.

  13. Barnacukor, I'm not sure I'll be able to supply any more information than I have here at the blog, but you can contact me at:
    mikeperschon at shaw dot ca

  14. Just a few scattered thoughts, having finished the book on the train to work this morning:

    1. The structure (oblique relationships between the 'iterations') reminded me of Keith Roberts' Pavane - as did the, ahem, 'measured' pacing.

    2. I'm surprised that a lot of the analysis I've scanned doesn't mention the novel's examination of the dangers of an authoritarian surveillance culture - especially given the prevalence of Oliphant's 'All-Seeing Eye' imagery and the references to 'disappearances', the non-accountability of the 'dark-lantern' agencies and the sinister ambitions of Egremont.

    3. Like erkyn above, the ending seems to me to be a visionary depiction of a post-Singularity state, coming shortly after Ada's lecture says that Engines will have the ability to develop self-awareness/consciousness once they can harness sufficient processing power (though electricity). It read to me like the giant (city-size?) engine was undergoing a process similar to Wintermute/Neuromancer.

    4. I would have liked to have seen a greater examination of the evolutionary theme - ie, along the lines of the 'catastrophe' that takes place when the revolutionary new steam gurney wins the race at Epsom and renders its predecessors obsolete and extinct.

  15. Tom - if those are your scattered thoughts, I'd love to see your focused ones! Thanks very much - any one of your four points would constitute a whole study. I agree especially with your third point. I also agree with your first, but I think Roberts does it with better concision.

  16. The only advise I can offer to anyone thinking of reading or re-reading The Difference Engine but find it had to get through or finish would be to try listening to the audiobook version. That is how I first encountered the work and quickly fell in love with it. So far I have listened to it at least four times and it never gets old. I drive from Orange County to San Francisco at least four times a year and it makes for an absolutely fantastic traveling companion. It's $20 on iTunes but could easily be found cheaper if not free on other less than legal sites but well worth the money if like me you do any amount of long road trips. Hope this helps more people to enjoy the work as I have.

  17. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought this was hard to read. Parts of it are fun and at times I liked the details but too often I felt bored and wanted to give up. I think this was written by and for people who love Victorian era history not for people who like the steampunk aesthetic. It makes me wonder if people who don't care for computer tech and japanophile stuff feel bored while reading Neuromancer...

    I don't see myself re-reading The Difference Engine and I'm not sure if it was worth my time (it took a lot of time). The last 40 pages or so, after the big action scene, were unbearable to read and really made me dislike the whole book. I skipped to the last chapter and felt disappointed. I can't imagine a lot of people liking all those short chapters at the end. Maybe people who enjoy reading 19th century history?

    Definitely not a bad novel. Just one that seems suited for a specific audience.

  18. Hey, Unknown, thanks for your comment. It's so wild to me to see people's reactions to all these different books. The "difference" engine of steampunk is that one person wants serious alternate history - another wants high-flying adventure - another wants social commentary. Thankfully, there's room for all this and more under the steampunk umbrella, which is, of course, a parasol.

  19. Thank you for this article. It cleared a lot up for me.

    I just finished this book and loved it, although I didn't quite understand everything in there. The way it weaves together this rather plausible scenario based on alternative history was fascinating. Maybe I am biased as I live near Mallory's home town of Lewes but it was an immersive experience, similar to against the day.

    Thanks again for the analysis. It helped my understanding.

    1. You're welcome, Peter! I am about to return to this book for another read--a refresher for the book on steampunk I'm currently working on. And thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  20. I chose to read The Difference Engine to prepare myself for my first Steampunk conference (Teslacon), in addition to being a Gibson fan. I loved the book because of the way it absorbed me into that alternative Victorian age. I could feel myself chocking in the big stink as I made my way along the dark and gloomy gas lit streets.


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