Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Difference Engine

For sordid reasons I'll not go into here, I was inadvertently compelled into reading Bruce Sterling and William Gibson's shared steampunk novel. I had read this when it came out originally, but could remember few details about it, only that I had a general feeling of liking it. Given I enjoy both authors anyway, the compulsion wasn't unwelcome; I was looking forward to the opportunity to reread it.

The premise of the book is fascinating—Charles Babbage's difference engine works and is hooked up to steam engines as a source of power in the Victorian era. As a result, Great Britain is a far greater world power than factual history would have it, leading the world in computing power and associated technologies and advancing science beyond its historical bounds. Steam-powered cars race at Ascot and "digital" movies are shown at theatres, where such artists as John Keats show off the latest innovations at "clacking"—programming the behemoth engines of logic. Lord Byron is an aging Prime Minister who oversaw the cultural upheaval in Great Britain at the advent of the difference engine, empowering "common" people into positions of authority and government ahead of the titled leaders, whose only claim to such power is ancestry. Great Britain is governed by thinkers and people who have earned their position through work and research, and this powerful combination gives them the initiative and ability to create transforming technologies.

The plot itself is a series of vignettes following relatively famous British people as they deal with the circumstances surrounding a special program that has been written as specially created punchcards and apparently fallen into the wrong hands. First Sybil Gerard, a courtesan and daughter of a leading Luddite, retrieves the package from the wreckage of an aborted attempt by representatives of the Nation of Texas to gain political and popular support from the British in their ongoing troubles at home. They then fall into the hands of Edward Mallory, a paleontologist and accidental British agent in the New World. His possession of them occurs as a great heat inversion drowns London in a deadly smog and obscures revolutionaries trying to take down Byron's reformed government. Those revolutionaries make Mallory's professional and personal life miserable, acting against his family and his scientific interests in order to blackmail him into returning the program cards. After Mallory, the story follows Laurence Oliphant a writer of travelling journals who is also a British spy who takes up the trail of the cards, which in turns leads him circularly back to Sybil Gerard.

The majority of the book--those vignettes--are stylishly crafted and nearly decadent in the richness of details surrounding British life in the age of the difference engine. Immersion into alternative London culture is nearly complete, including slang and history as our characters move about the city. The reader is exposed to all classes of people, from the lowest dregs to near-royalty. The prose is lush, leaning towards the style we typically refer to as Victorian today. Gibson and Sterling revel in the details of their shared world, and sometimes even the most attentive reader is merely adrift in those details as the plot sometimes moves sluggishly along beneath. London is at once a beautifully advanced city as well as a piteous eyesore to its masses. The Difference Engine is an exhibit for the trope of the "-punk" subgenres' depiction of society as having only upper and lower classes and relying in some part on the furtive intercourse between them.

There is also a strong feeling of movement in the course of the novel. Something is going to happen by its end, and it is going to be revelatory. And this is where the novel fails for me; its conclusion is chaotic and indecipherable, leaving the reader with no real conclusion at all. The short story and novella length vignettes become articles and snippets, out of order as if they had fallen free from a scrapbook, that lead to …I don't know what. Some of the concluding passages clearly reflect on the events of the earlier vignettes, but others seem unassociated at all. And while the shorter and shorter passages imply accelerated movement toward the end, further implying there being something at the end, that end is unsubstantial and abstract. As a result, I can only make guesses at what happened, and research about the ending reveals interpretations the bases of which I can't figure out.

Which is all a shame. I genuinely enjoyed the vignettes, with their writing and storytelling. I'd like to see more stories set in this world, perhaps an anthology of short stories written by notable authors. I'd like to erase the conclusion, or at least understand its foundation without resorting to interpretations from other sources. And so I am left with an incomplete feeling, and a puzzle regarding recommending the book. I am reminded of a book group I used to belong to, where we were to read some French modern novel, and I just came away from the book with despair. Long passages are incomprehensible to me, and characters said and did things that had no logic to me. And when the group discussed the novel, one of the less thoughtful members of the group proclaimed their thorough enjoyment of the book. I was amazed, and when I pointed out long packages of chaos that had befuddled me, he replied "I didn't read parts that I thought I wouldn't like." I can't recommend picking up this novel and reading until the last forty pages or so and then walking away. But I can half-heartedly recommend a potentially stunning book, by two very strong authors, that just seems to fall apart in its final pages.

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