Book Review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Losing my steampunk virginity continues with the other seminal work of the subgenre written by two of the biggest names in sci fi. I had no expectations having read only Neuromancer by Gibson a few years ago and nothing by Bruce Sterling. I went in with an open mind but having a fair idea of what to expect from the sub-genre.

This is a simple tale set in a sort of alternate reality Victorian London. The Industrialists run things as the British Empire rules the waves of the global market through great (and as far as the reader is concerned) anachronistic technologies that in reality were imagined but never realised.

As a result, the Luddite movement is far more organised, far more successful and has some pretty powerful allies amongst the socialist movement. The Industrial Radical Party has seen a meteoric rise in the period, similarly to how Labour really came to prominence slightly later on. People with an interest in the Victorian period will get all the name checks: Babbage, Disraeli, Darwin, Brunel, Byron, Wellington, various poets and a whole host of others. There are also references to the major issues of the time: smog, gas lighting, the industrial revolution, trade unions, Marx and Engels etc.

It is written in a simplistic and straight-to-the-point style that does not always appeal to me. I settled in quite easily and allowed the story to take me in. The plot, though largely interesting, rambles at times. It is not always clear what is going on and in which direction the story is heading. The climax, when it arrives, almost feels like a non-ending with a “is that it?” moment followed by a few personal letters and newspaper clippings to bring it to a close.

Of the two recommended reads in the early era of the sub-genre, I most certainly preferred The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers but I love neither book; they were good but not great. I appreciate that my reading in the sub-genre is very limited and I look forward to exploring this quirky world of steampunk a lot more in future.

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