Lit 80, Fall 2013

The Difference Engine

October 11th, 2013 | Posted by Craig Bearison in Uncategorized

The Difference Engine, written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, was first published in 1990 and has become one of the most famous steampunk novels. The novel is set (for the most part) in a reimagined 1855 in which Charles Babbage had succeeded in building a Difference Engine and technological innovation exploded rapidly thereafter. Within this premise, Gibson and Sterling created an extremely interesting world, radically different from what we know actually happened. As events unfold throughout this book, the reader is constantly made to think about how technology influences society by comparing what we know to have happened (or learned by Googling something every other page) and what we are exposed to in this society by following Sybil, Mallory, and Oliphant. Above all, The Difference Engine is concerned with how technology influences society and shapes the way we live our daily lives.

The actual plot of the novel gets overshadowed by the crazy setting and all of other things going on in this 19th Century computer/mechanical age. It is hard to care about the ‘heist’ aspect involving the punch cards when there are so many interesting things going on in the world around them. One of the biggest historical changes in the novel is that Lord Byron did not die in the war in Greece and became the leader of the Industrial Radical Party, “the rads”, which came to power. The new technology created in the wake of the difference engine often times resemble things that were eventually developed in the real 20th century. One of the coolest technologies in the book is the kinotrope. The kinotrope is like a television in that it shows moving scenes using tiny pixels that change color. Like the other technologies in this book, the klinotrope is, of course, mechanical and not digital. Tiny cubes serve as the pixels and are physically spun using power from a steam engine. The ‘film’ is preprogrammed using punch cards. I found a good explanation of this fictional technology here.

The novel also does a great of explaining how these technologies are utilized in society, again often mirroring how their correlates are used in our world. The kinotrope is employed by Sam Houston to enhance the dramatic impression of his speech and engage the audience. As Houston is retelling the story about a battle he fought against Indians, a recreation of the battle is being shown on the Kinotrope. The screen is also programmed to show fictitious designs. As Houston transitions from talking about happily getting married to talking about tragedy, the State Seal is shown getting covered in a menacing darkness. As we touched on in class, this is an example of film being used as propaganda. The film is used to influence the audience’s impression of his story. One funny thing I noticed in this scene is that Sybil becomes bored and even has to hold back a yawn during the battle scene. I think this might be a critique by Gibson and Sterling of how desensitized to violence our society is in the digital age because of simulated violence.

The Difference Engine also raises questions on how technologies and their social implications might influence our morals, values, and interests. In this fictitious society, the fine arts have mostly fallen by the wayside. In one scene, Mallory is puzzled by why somebody would be interested in such a strange topic when he is asked about famous poets. In the same scene, common morality is thrown in to question when Mallory gets called a bigot for being anti-slavery. The Marquess explains that it would be cruel to “pack poor Jupiter off to one of those fever-ridden jungles in Liberia!” when he can now read poetry and write (Gibson and Sterling 342). The societal changes brought about by revolutionary technologies even shifts our point-of-view and morality. The theme of technology infiltrating all facets of society and transcending set purposes (repurposing) is something we have seen throughout this class and will continue to see.

Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Random House, Inc., 1990.

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