Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Review: The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was an interesting alternative history book. After reading Pattern Recognition, I was not sure if I would like this book, but it was shown to be one of the highly recommended science fiction works. I believe this falls under the steam punk genre, but really I am not an expert in genre definition. There is steam, but not so many punks.

The world of The Difference Engine is set in and around 1850 Britain after Charles Babbage and the mental elite have setup a meritocracy in England around the enterprise of their steam powered computation machines. The United States do not exist other than in a pocket of the Northeast, except for the Manhattan Commune. The South is it's own country along with Texas. Germany is a scattered set of nation states and Britain and France are deep allies.

The story is centered around 3 main characters that have come into contact with a set of punch cards, but the story is not really about those cards (or if it is, I start worrying about the depth of story). The story starts with that of a fallen woman, whose father lead an anti-technology movement but was executed for those beliefs. Next you follow a paleontologist who is attempting to navigate the world of Britain's savant aristocracy. Finally you follow a British spy who is primarily interested in keeping the world that Britain has created and cultivated in existence.

The most interesting thing for me was the section around Thomas Mallory, but I really liked the special policeman that is assigned to help keep him safe and protected. The story is meandering and seems to just hint at these menaces hovering at the periphery. His portion of the story takes place during the most overt of the conflict, the rising up of the communist ideals against the meritocracy.

Overall this has been under consideration by some of my friends as must read science fiction. I don't think I would do that, but it is something that I can recommend as fun reading.

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