Lit 80, Fall 2013

In the early 1900’s, complex electric circuits came into being and boomed with the help of inventions such as the Edison’s tinfoil dictation machine, light bulb, and Bell’s telephone. Half a century later, the late twentieth century ushered a new information era with the inventions of the computer, internet and advances  in telecommunication and digital data transfer systems. Although it is irrefutably clear about the technological significance and the rich potential legacy the first emerging computer has left mankind, what would happen if a more primitive computer had been invented in the 1800’s, more than a century earlier? Would it change the information age as we see it now?

In their novel The Difference Engine , William Gibson and Bruce Sterling attempt to introduce us to exactly that kind of alternate history, specifically, a Great Britain in its Victorian age where Babbage actually manages to successfully invent the difference engine (computer). Gibson and Sterling, in the book’s settings, not only draw parallels to current technology and real people, such as surveillance systems, credit cards, Charles Darwin and “clackers” (hackers), but also delve into the imaginary aspects to give us a newer glimpse of other “more weird” inventions, such as the use of “punch cards” to program computing engines.

It is interesting to note that Gibson included many symbols and references that occur both in The Difference Engine and in Neuromancer , another novel where he defines the cyberpunk/cyberspace genre. Both books depict a society in which masses of people completely support and rely on fast emerging technology to live their daily lives. For example, in Neuromancer, almost all people can and do transfer between the real physical world and a digital cyberspace, whereas most people support a dominating Industrial Radical Party for rapid technology boom in The Difference Engine. There are, however, clear differences between these two as well. Neuromancer provides us with two domains, the real and the digital, which are bases on the 1980’s (when Gibson wrote his novel), whereas as The Difference Engine focuses more into historical aspects and educational guesses of an alternate piece of history that had not happened in real time.

Another aspect Gibson and Sterling delineate in The Difference Engine is that rapidly emerging new technologies causes intense industrial competition between countries. Those countries that cannot keep up with the fast pace of the information era will be eventually made obsolete. The novel implies this fact by exploiting on Japan’s rapid industrial rise in the twentieth century in real history. In the books settings, Britain aids Japan, who is desperate to boom to the point of even doing anything in return for the British, to become a leading nation in information technology and computer engines.

The Difference Engine, in a nutshell, gives us a comprehensive view into alternate history of early digital technological boom and its potential widespread effects on the industry and the society.



Gibson, William, Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

We live in a world where technology is an integral part of our lives—but how would our world be different if technology had developed at a different time? Better yet, how would the past be different if the technology that we use almost subconsciously on a daily basis had been available? In their novel The Difference Engine William Gibson and Bruce Sterling explore what the late 1800s would have been like if Charles Babbage had been successful in building a mechanical computer. Throughout the novel, the authors implement prototypes for technologies that are common in our world today—such as credit cards, social security numbers, calculators, and projectors. Some of the emerging technologies are even more advanced than what we have today, such as the ability to trace someone’s personal history simply by obtaining their “number”.

The entire novel in itself can be viewed as a prototype for the world Gibson created in his other novel Neuromancer. Both plots, when simplified, are elaborate heists to obtain a key to information—whether that key is a box of plastic cards or hacking into a computer system. Similarly, both novels contain depth in their settings. Neuromancer’s is more obvious, as the characters alternate between reality and cyberspace, and furthermore different layers of consciousness within cyberspace. In The Difference Engine, while the characters remain in reality, there are different dimensions established between social classes and the world’s they inhabit. In the cases of both novels, these different dimensions become intertwined through the characters’ interactions. The comparison between the two is interesting, as it demonstrates how technology—regardless of its level of progression—has a timeless impact on how its usage affects our interactions with our environment and others.

Which brings us back to the question of what our world would be like today if the Babbage Engine had succeeded—would we be far off from the world presented in Neuromancer?