This 20th anniversary edition of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine will introduce new millennium readers with what could be justly described as the granddad of steampunk novels. This former Discover Great New Writers selection peers into an alternate Victorian history in which the proto-computer discoveries of eccentric designer Charles Babbage are put to unexpected use. A wonderfully readable classic.
The Difference Engineby William Gibson
The 20th anniversary edition of the classic steampunk novel
With new commentary by the authors
1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine, and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. Three extraordinary characters race toward a/b>
The 20th anniversary edition of the classic steampunk novel
With new commentary by the authors
1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine, and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. Three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with the future: Sybil Gerard—fallen woman, politician’s tart, daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward “Leviathan” Mallory—explorer and paleontologist; Laurence Oliphant—diplomat, mystic, and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for.
Part detective story, part historical thriller, The Difference Engine took the science fiction community by storm when it was first published twenty years ago. This special anniversary edition features an Introduction by Cory Doctorow and a collaborative essay from the authors looking back on their creation. Provocative, compelling, intensely imagined, this novel is poised to impress a whole new generation.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Angel of Goliad
Composite image, optically encoded by escort-craft of the trans-Channel airship Lord Brunel: aerial view of suburban Cherbourg, October 14, 1905.
A villa, a garden, a balcony.
Erase the balcony’s wrought-iron curves, exposing a bath-chair and its occupant. Reflected sunset glints from the nickel-plate of the chair’s wheel-spokes.
The occupant, owner of the villa, rests her arthritic hands upon fabric woven by a Jacquard loom.
These hands consist of tendons, tissue, jointed bone. Through quiet processes of time and information, threads within the human cells have woven themselves into a woman.
Her name is Sybil Gerard.
Below her, in a neglected formal garden, leafless vines lace wooden trellises on whitewashed, flaking walls. From the open windows of her sickroom, a warm draft stirs the loose white hair at her neck, bringing scents of coal-smoke, jasmine, opium.
Her attention is fixed upon the sky, upon a silhouette of vast and irresistible gracemetal, 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.
Thoughts come unbidden, the mind weaving its perspectives, assembling meaning from emotion and memory.
She recalls her life in London. Recalls herself, so long ago, making her way along the Strand, pressing past the crush at Temple Bar. Pressing on, the city of Memory winding itself about hertill, by the walls on Newgate, the shadow of her father’s hanging falls . . .
And Memory turns, deflected swift as light, down another bywayone where it is always evening. . . .
It is January 15, 1855.
A room in Grand’s Hotel, Piccadilly.
One chair was propped backward, wedged securely beneath the door’s cut-glass knob. Another was draped with clothing: a woman’s fringed mantelet, a mud-crusted skirt of heavy worsted, a man’s checked trousers and cutaway coat.
Two forms lay beneath the bedclothes of the laminated-maple four-poster, and off in the iron grip of winter Big Ben bellowed ten o’clock, great hoarse calliope sounds, the coal-fired breath of London.
Sybil slid her feet through icy linens to the warmth of the ceramic bottle in its wrap of flannel. Her toes brushed his shin. The touch seemed to start him from deep deliberation. That was how he was, this Dandy Mick Radley.
She’d met Mick Radley at Laurent’s Dancing Academy, down Windmill Street. Now that she knew him, he seemed more the sort for Kellner’s in Leicester Square, or even the Portland Rooms. He was always thinking, scheming, muttering over something in his head. Clever, clever. It worried her. And Mrs. Winterhalter wouldn’t have approved, for the handling of “political gentlemen” required delicacy and discretion, qualities Mrs. Winterhalter believed she herself had a‑plenty, while crediting none to her girls.
“No more dollymopping, Sybil,” Mick said. One of his pronouncements, something about which he’d made up his clever mind.
Sybil grinned up at him, her face half-hidden by the blanket’s warm edge. She knew he liked the grin. Her wicked-girl grin. He can’t mean that, she thought. Make a joke of it, she told herself. “But if I weren’t a wicked dollymop, would I be here with you now?”
“No more playing bobtail.”
“You know I only go with gentlemen.”
Mick sniffed, amused. “Call me a gentleman, then?”
“A very flash gentleman,” Sybil said, flattering him. “One of the fancy. You know I don’t care for the Rad Lords. I spit on ’em, Mick.”
Sybil shivered, but not unhappily, for she’d run into a good bit of luck here, full of steak-and-taters and hot chocolate, in bed between clean sheets in a fashionable hotel. A shiny new hotel with central steam-heat, though she’d gladly have traded the restless gurgling and banging of the scrolled gilt radiator for the glow of a well-banked hearth.
And he was a good-looking cove, this Mick Radley, she had to admit, dressed very flash, had the tin and was generous with it, and he’d yet to demand anything peculiar or beastly. She knew it wouldn’t last, as Mick was a touring gent from Manchester, and gone soon enough. But there was profit in him, and maybe more when he left her, if she made him feel sorry about it, and generous.
Mick reclined into fat feather-pillows and slid his manicured fingers behind his spit-curled head. Silk nightshirt all frothy with lace down the frontonly the best for Mick. Now he seemed to want to talk a bit. Men did, usually, after a whileabout their wives, mostly.
But for Dandy Mick, it was always politics. “So, you hate the Lordships, Sybil?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Sybil said. “I have my reasons.”
“I should say you do,” Mick said slowly, and the look he gave her then, of cool superiority, sent a shiver through her.
“What d’ye mean by that, Mick?”
“I know your reasons for hating the Government. I have your number.”
Surprise seeped into her, then fear. She sat up in bed. There was a taste in her mouth like cold iron.
“You keep your card in your bag,” he said. “I took that number to a rum magistrate I know. He ran it through a government Engine for me, and printed up your Bow Street file, rat-a-tat-tat, like fun.” He smirked. “So I know all about you, girl. Know who you are . . .”
She tried to put a bold face on it. “And who’s that, then, Mr. Radley?”
“No Sybil Jones, dearie. You’re Sybil Gerard, the daughter of Walter Gerard, the Luddite agitator.”
He’d raided her hidden past.
Machines, whirring somewhere, spinning out history.
Now Mick watched her face, smiling at what he saw there, and she recognized a look she’d seen before, at Laurent’s, when first he’d spied her across the crowded floor. A hungry look.
Her voice shook. “How long have you known about me?”
“Since our second night. You know I travel with the General. Like any important man, he has enemies. As his secretary and man-of-affairs, I take few chances with strangers.” Mick put his cruel, deft little hand on her shoulder. “You might have been someone’s agent. It was business.”
Sybil flinched away. “Spying on a helpless girl,” she said at last. “You’re a right bastard, you are!”
But her foul words scarcely seemed to touch himhe was cold and hard, like a judge or a lordship. “I may spy, girl, but I use the Government’s machinery for my own sweet purposes. I’m no copper’s nark, to look down my nose at a revolutionary like Walter Gerardno matter what the Rad Lords may call him now. Your father was a hero.”
He shifted on the pillow. “My herothat was Walter Gerard. I saw him speak, on the Rights of Labour, in Manchester. He was a marvelwe all cheered till our throats was raw! The good old Hell-Cats . . .” Mick’s smooth voice had gone sharp and flat, in a Mancunian tang. “Ever hear tell of the Hell-Cats, Sybil? In the old days?”
“A street-gang,” Sybil said. “Rough boys in Manchester.”
Mick frowned. “We was a brotherhood! A friendship youth-guild! Your father knew us well. He was our patron politician, you might say.”
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t speak of my father, Mr. Radley.”
Mick shook his head at her impatiently. “When I heard they’d tried and hanged him”the words like ice behind her ribs“me and the lads, we took up torches and crowbars, and we ran hot and wild. . . . That was Ned Ludd’s work, girl! Years ago . . .” He picked delicately at the front of his nightshirt. “ ’Tis not a tale I tell to many. The Government’s Engines have long memories.”
She understood it nowMick’s generosity and his sweet-talk, the strange hints he’d aimed at her, of secret plans and better fortune, marked cards and hidden aces. He was pulling her strings, making her his creature. The daughter of Walter Gerard was a fancy prize, for a man like Mick.
She pulled herself out of bed, stepping across icy floorboards in her pantalettes and chemise.
She dug quickly, silently, through the heap of her clothing. The fringed mantelet, the jacket, the great sagging cage of her crinoline skirt. The jingling white cuirass of her corset.
“Get back in bed,” Mick said lazily. “Don’t get your monkey up. ’Tis cold out there.” He shook his head. “ ’Tis not like you think, Sybil.”
She refused to look at him, struggling into her corset by the window, where frost-caked glass cut the upwashed glare of gaslight from the street. She cinched the corset’s laces tight across her back with a quick practiced snap of her wrists.
“Or if it is,” Mick mused, watching her, “ ’tis only in small degree.”
Across the street, the opera had let outgentry in their cloaks and top-hats. Cab-horses, their backs in blankets, stamped and shivered on the black macadam. White traces of clean suburban snow still clung to the gleaming coachwork of some lordship’s steam-gurney. Tarts were working the crowd. Poor wretched souls. Hard indeed to find a kind face amid those goffered shirts and diamond studs, on such a cold night. Sybil turned toward Mick, confused, angry, and very much afraid. “Who did you tell about me?”
“Not a living soul,” Mick said, “not even my friend the General. And I won’t be peaching on you. Nobody’s ever said Mick Radley’s indiscreet. So get back in bed.”
“I shan’t,” Sybil said, standing straight, her bare feet freezing on the floorboards. “Sybil Jones may share your bedbut the daughter of Walter Gerard is a personage of substance!”
Mick blinked at her, surprised. He thought it over, rubbing his narrow chin, then nodded. “ ’Tis my sad loss, then, Miss Gerard.” He sat up in bed and pointed at the door, with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “Put on your skirt, then, and your brass-heeled dolly-boots, Miss Gerard, and out the door with you and your substance. But ’twould be a great shame if you left. I’ve uses for a clever girl.”
“I should say you do, you blackguard,” said Sybil, but she hesitated. He had another card to playshe could sense it in the set of his face.
He grinned at her, his eyes slitted. “Have you ever been to Paris, Sybil?”
“Paris?” Her breath clouded in midair.
“Yes,” he said, “the gay and the glamorous, next destination for the General, when his London lecture tour is done.” Dandy Mick plucked at his lace cuffs. “What those uses are, that I mentioned, I shan’t as yet say. But the General is a man of deep stratagem. And the Government of France have certain difficulties that require the help of experts. . . .” He leered triumphantly. “But I can see that I bore you, eh?”
Sybil shifted from foot to foot. “You’ll take me to Paris, Mick,” she said slowly, “and that’s the true bill, no snicky humbugging?”
“Strictly square and level. If you don’t believe me, I’ve a ticket in my coat for the Dover ferry.”
Sybil walked to the brocade armchair in the corner, and tugged at Mick’s greatcoat. She shivered uncontrollably, and slipped the greatcoat on. Fine dark wool, like being wrapped in warm money.
“Try the right front pocket,” Mick told her. “The card-case.” He was amused and confidentas if it were funny that she didn’t trust him. Sybil thrust her chilled hands into both pockets. Deep, plush-lined . . .
Her left hand gripped a lump of hard cold metal. She drew out a nasty little pepperbox derringer. Ivory handle, intricate gleam of steel hammers and brass cartridges, small as her hand but heavy.
“Naughty,” said Mick, frowning. “Put it back, there’s a girl.”
Sybil put the thing away, gently but quickly, as if it were a live crab. In the other pocket she found his card-case, red morocco leather; inside were business cards, cartes-de-visite with his Engine-stippled portrait, a London train timetable.
And an engraved slip of stiff creamy parchment, first-class passage on the Newcomen, out of Dover.
“You’ll need two tickets, then,” she hesitated, “if you really mean to take me.”
Mick nodded, conceding the point. “And another for the train from Cherbourg, too. And nothing simpler. I can wire for tickets, downstairs at the lobby desk.”
Sybil shivered again, and wrapped the coat closer. Mick laughed at her. “Don’t give me that vinegar phiz. You’re still thinking like a dollymop; stop it. Start thinking flash, or you’ll be of no use to me. You’re Mick’s gal nowa high-flyer.”
She spoke slowly, reluctantly. “I’ve never been with any man who knew I was Sybil Gerard.” That was a lie, of coursethere was Egremont, the man who had ruined her. Charles Egremont had known very well who she was. But Egremont no longer matteredhe lived in a different world, now, with his po-faced respectable wife, and his respectable children, and his respectable seat in Parliament.
And Sybil hadn’t been dollymopping, with Egremont. Not exactly, anyway. A matter of degree. . . .
She could tell that Mick was pleased at the lie she’d told him. It had flattered him.
Mick opened a gleaming cigar-case, extracted a cheroot, and lit it in the oily flare of a repeating match, filling the room with the candied smell of cherry tobacco.
“So now you feel a bit shy with me, do you?” he said at last. “Well, I prefer it that way. What I know, that gives me a bit more grip on you, don’t it, than mere tin.”
His eyes narrowed. “It’s what a cove knows that counts, ain’t it, Sybil? More than land or money, more than birth. Information. Very flash.”
Sybil felt a moment of hatred for him, for his ease and confidence. Pure resentment, sharp and primal, but she crushed her feelings down. The hatred wavered, losing its purity, turning to shame. She did hate himbut only because he truly knew her. He knew how far Sybil Gerard had fallen, that she had been an educated girl, with airs and graces, as good as any gentry girl, once.
From the days of her father’s fame, from her girlhood, Sybil could remember Mick Radley’s like. She knew the kind of boy that he had been. Ragged angry factory-boys, penny-a-score, who would crowd her father after his torchlight speeches, and do whatever he commanded. Rip up railroad tracks, kick the boiler-plugs out of spinning jennies, lay policemen’s helmets by his feet. She and her father had fled from town to town, often by night, living in cellars, attics, anonymous rooms-to-let, hiding from the Rad police and the daggers of other conspirators. And sometimes, when his own wild speeches had filled him with a burning elation, her father would embrace her and soberly promise her the world. She would live like gentry in a green and quiet England, when King Steam was wrecked. When Byron and his Industrial Radicals were utterly destroyed. . . .
What People are saying about this
“Smartly plotted, wonderfully crafted, and written with sly literary wit . . . spins marvelously and runs like a dream.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Splendid . . . highly imaginative.”—Chicago Tribune
“A ripping adventure yarn.”—Los Angeles Times
“[A] tour-de-force.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
This is an excellent novel. Many of the main characters (if not all) are historical figures whose life paths have been rewritten somewhat by the authors to fit into the overall alternate universe they inhabit. I have a weakness for novels that educate as well as entertain, and within it's covers I found many interesting tidbits of information (such as the etymology of vitriol). The plot moved quickly enough to keep me interested, and the exploration of scientific theories and technical issues added flavor. I haven't read any other Bruce Sterling works, but if you are a fan of William Gibson, and historical novels, chances are you will enjoy this book immensely.
I completely disagree with the previous review by my fellow state - resident. I thought the book was imaginative, well-written, and a hell of a lot of fun. btw i'm a mathematician / programmer by profession, and didnt feel talked down to by this book...a rarity in sci-fi and speculative history.
After having read several books by both William Gibson and Bruce Steriling the conclusion is unamimous. Both authors have a great sense for unique exciting new ideas but, when it comes to placing such concepts in a full legnth novel, the ideas get lost in a directionless collection of smaller stories that are haphazardly strung together. The trouble lies in a lack of building any sense of anticpation; foreshadowing exists not at all. As a result, the novel is nothing more than a group of loosely related happenings strung together by only the thinnest of threads. What is need is being able to leader the reader, bit by bit, to an ending that culminates with all the situations coming together in either an anticipated ending that explains the storyline in an exciting way or, if the situation warrants, an ending that is contrary to where one is lead to believe it might have been -- a'la the Twilight Zone type taled. Neither Mr. Gibson nor Mr. Sterling seem to have a solid grasp for any of this when it comes to creating a novel, instead both seem better at home in the realm of writing short stories where their talents truly shine.
In 1855 as the Industrial Revolution continues to pollute the big cities of England, Charles Babbage creates the steam driven analytical engine. The Luddites learn of this incredible advancement and vow to destroy this new use of technology that heralds the beginning of the Information Revolution. Mick Radley obtains key perforated cards, but when he is murdered the cards pass to his girlfriend Sybil Gerard who deals with General Houston and the Texian. Prime Minister Lord Byron's daughter Ada obtains the cards, but soon scientist Edward Mallory possesses the cards, but needs the Babbage analytical engine to read them. The Luddites attack him and his name. Eventually detective Lawrence Oliphant, who is dying from syphilis, investigates the mystery of the cards. The 20th Anniversary Edition of this complicated alternate history thriller shows the novel holds up well against the test of time as the London of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling remains an intriguing locale. Although the overall fast-paced plot decelerates at times especially in the middle of the Third Iteration and the finish not up to the complex story line, The Difference Engine is an engaging mystery set in a steampunk Victorian environment. With a Modus adding insight, sub-genre fans will enjoy this reprint. Harriet Klausner
What I appreciated about this steampunk book was that it didn't have the unrealistic supernatural/gothic element (vampires, werewolves, elder gods, etc.) that are in so many books of the sub-genre. It is just good, solid alternate history world-building. However the ending was disappointing / anticlimactic and a bit hard to understand since it was told in a completely different style than the rest of the book (via newspaper clippings).
Hmmmmm..........u r so talented and u have me on the edge of my seat. What happens next. Jade
"Hi! You must be Grace." A boy with curly dirty blonde hair and green eyes smiles at me as I enter McDonald's with Luke. "Yeah. Um... I don't believe that we've met." I say politely. "Oh! Sorry. I'm Ashton, Luke's friend." The boy, Ashton, shakes my hand and I smile. Then I look at the other boys that are sitting with Ashton. "I'm Calum." A boy with black hair and brown eyes waves. "And I am Michael Clifford, not the big red dog though." Michael laughs and the other boys stiffle a laugh. "I don't get it..." I trail off. "Clifford the big red dog? Don't you watch T.V.?" Michael asks. "No. I'm actually not allowed to watch T.V." I smile. All the boys' mouths open and I look down at my feet. "Let's get some food." Luke suggests and I smile at Luke, gratefully. Luke smiles back and walks me over to a counter. "Wow..." I whisper to myself as I see the menu. "What would you like to try?" Luke asks me as I skim the menu. "A Big Mac? How is it?" I look at Luke. "Good choice. I think I'll get that as well." Luke smiles. I blush and look down. Why am I blushing? Why is there a weird feeling in my stomach? It's like butterflies. The kind I get before I get before a test but this time it feels good. Luke tells the lady behind the counter our order and leads me back to the table. "Heyyyyy! Why is Grace looking at her feet?" Calum asks. "I don't know." Luke shrugs and sits down. The only seat left is next to Luke. So I sit down next to Luke. It's because of you, you idiot! Is what I want to say. "Just being shy." I whisper. *LATER* "Oh my god! So this is a park?" I gasp as I see a playground and a pretty little sports field. "Yeah. You've really never been to a park before? Not even when you were little?" Luke asks me. Ashton, Michael and Calum left for some reason. I can't remember why. "Never. My parents are to worried that I'll fall into the wrong kind of crowd if I ever go outside." I say. "Wow. That's kind of sad... let's play on the playground!" Luke smiles the biggest smile that I've ever seen. He dashes toward the playground and I giggle as I run after him. *LATER* "Thank you for today." I smile up at Luke. "Hey! I just wanted you to live a little. No need to thank me." Luke smiles back down at me. "No. I do need to thank you. My parents would never let me do this. God, I've never even touched that front door until today. I was always locked up in the study or in my bedroom. I've never had a reason to try to look good. Most times I just wear sweatpants and an undershirt. This is incredible and new and I can never thabk you enough." I say. Luke stares into my eyes and he looks as if he is thinking. But it's different. It's like he's trying to tell me something. Luke starts to lean in and I find myself doing the same until our lips meet.*************** AWWWWWWH! ♥ A
Great read, at some times difficult. Don't expect typical Gibson. Definitely will look up Sterling now!
I liked the novel...the prose itself was great, and at times was great at building up a sense of atmospheric dread. Having read this book only after the whole 'sreampunk' thing blew up, i can' t fault the authors for taking me over territory that might seem almost tiresomely cliche and done to death. Gibson and Sterling write this before cyber or any kind of 'punk' was probably still a legitimate subculture cranking out actual new and original ideas. I wisd ai had read this earlier- other than that great book with an interesting yet kinda concepty afterward explaiination by the authors of why the ending seems so fragmentary and apparently dissapointing to some.