Lit 80, Fall 2013

The computer is arguably the most indispensable cultural artifact of our generation. They are essential to our world’s infrastructure – it is the primary method of communication, information transference, transaction, and so much more. We have developed a subconscious reliance on technology to function as a society. Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine entertains a very profound and intriguing related concept in the most thorough way possible – what would our lives be like if the computer (namely, the Babbage’s Difference Engine) was invented almost 200 years before they were actually invented? Gibson and Sterling’s attempt to delve into this hypothetical situation is admirably ambitious and impressively complex. They depict a “speculative past” that loosely parallels our actual past, making assumptions about the supposed trajectory that technological inventions may have taken, as well as societal development that might have occurred following Charles Babbage’s successful creation of the computer. The setting of the novel takes place in 1800’s Victorian London onwards, and features important figures or organizations in London’s history (or fictional analogues) such as The Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, the Luddites, the Labour Party, etc.

The value of reading this novel is not necessarily derived from its plot – it is instead the distinct structure and rich narration that make it stand out. The novel is divided into five separate iterations of a story, with the fifth iteration being written by the “Modus.” Essentially, iterations are revealed to represent computer-generated alterations of a similar story, which raises some interesting questions about the recording of history and the seemingly infinite variable possibilities of computers. The authors also took on the formidable task of creating a logical environment of an imaginary past. This includes creating systems of politics, economy, communication, and even fashion – they had to communicate an entire, immersive society different than our actual society merely through the art of storytelling. The technological innovations of the imaginary society have many notable counterparts in our real world, which makes the story a unique experience – it serves as a form of social commentary on our present society. Specifically, the balances of power and relationships in the novel based on the hypothetical invention of the computer may perhaps demonstrate how people use technology and information to obtain and consolidate power and develop relationships in our real world. While this novel’s plot might have come across as seemingly disjointed or incoherent, it is a very intricate display of society that neatly explores an alternate past, comments on our real-life present, and suggests an alternate future.

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?