Lit 80, Fall 2013

    What would happen if there were computers in Victorian Britain? The difference engine as a typical work of steampunk is a novel that answers this question. In this novel, the authors, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, assumes that Charles Babbage not only succeeded  in developing his difference engine, a steam-powered machine that can do calculation but also  made it have the analytical ability. The appearance of this difference engine or a steam-powered computer changes everything from politics to art, from industrial design to scientific research, from social control to people’s lifestyle. With a machine’s appearance, an alternative history is created.

    From the fictive life in the alternative history shaped by a computational machine, we can always see the life of ourselves. For example, with a number Mike can know everything about Sybil. And also with a new number, Sybil could get away from the past and become a new person. Isn’t that number our Google account or Facebook account? From our accounts on Facebook and Google, a strange man has the access to the database can know everything we do in the “Cyberspace” from what we like to watch to what we do for living, from what we look like to what our habits are, from what we did the past and what we may do in the future. With a new account, we lose the friends on Facebook or Google plus and thus we can begin a new “life” online with totally new friends and even with  different digital personalities. That makes me think of Who owns the future. I begin to worry about what will big companies like Google and Facebook do with me in the future.

    In scientific research, the best way to know the function of an object is to see what is the difference between the results with and without the object. We cannot let history happen again to see the function of computers. But the intelligent authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling made it by creating an alternative history. Brian Mchale relates the novel to the postmodern interests in “finding a new way of ‘doing’ history is in fiction”. However, I think it is better to say that the novel finds a new way to reflect the reality and predict the future by a fictive story in history.


William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991.

McHale, Brian (1992). “Difference Engine”. ANQ 5: 220–23.

Ian Miles, “The difference engine: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling 383 pages, £13.95 (London, Victor Gollancz, 1990)”, Futures, 23 525 (1991).

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.

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.

The Difference Engine

October 13th, 2013 | Posted by Sai Cheemalapati in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

After the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s and the integrated circuit a few years later, the seeds were lain for the computing age to take off. In the following fifty years, developments in electronics and circuitry would lead to a world economic boom and revolution unprecedented in mankind’s history. The idea for a purely mechanical computer was conceived more than a 100 years before the invention of the computer however – by British inventor Charles Babbage. It begs the question then – what would’ve happened if the computing revolution happened a century earlier with the creation of Babbage’s analytic engine?

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, takes place in a world where the above takes place. In this alternative history, Babbage completes his analytic engine – the sequel to the difference engine – and ushers the computer age in Great Britain in the mid 1800s.

The novel limits itself to a mechanical revolution – the transistor does not exist yet in this universe, and instead of having machines built around the integrated circuit, mechanical steam powered machines become commonplace. The technology that comes to Great Britain is steampunk in design. For example, there are steam powered carriages and televisions called Kinotropes. While a little suspension of disbelief is required to believe that steam is an adequate power source and that these technologies are actually possible, the world they create is very interesting to me. I’m personally very biased towards scientific research and development. If I could rule the world I would move entire economies to produce technologies in every field full time. I’ve always wondered what would happen if humanities focus shifted purely to the pursuit and development of knowledge, and I believe that great wonders would be produced in no time. This novel explores some lines of my fantasy in that Britain begins to turn towards science and hold scientific figures like Charles Darwin in high light. Other studies are pushed aside and science and technology are put at the forefront. As a result, technological progress proceeds at a breakneck speed as “modern” devices appear and globalization looms.

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?

Information is Power

October 11th, 2013 | Posted by Shane Stone in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? highlights how the information age we live in is going to affect who is in charge of our future. He hypothesizes multiple scenarios that suggest the government or the siren servers could fill this role . William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine allows readers to see a potential world in which the information aged occurred earlier and as such has resulted in a change of society. In their suggested society, information is a dominant power that is greater “than land or money, more than birth” (Gibson and Sterling 1991). The people within society that possess sums of information have formed guilds based solely around knowledge. Although there were societies, like the X-Society, based on the principle of advancing knowledge in the true timeline, very few had any sway with politics or society. In this hypothetical society, they not only influence it, but are in charge of it. Lords are no longer gentleman of high birth, but rather are men whose information resulted in industrial change. These men have “the very globe at their feet” and impact the decisions made by even Queen Victoria (22).

In Lanier’s novel he suggests that the Golden Rule and people’s inherent desire to live in a society without theft will result in a similar etiquette for electronic information . Unfortunately, it appears as if he is too opportunistic because in the world Gibson and Sterling create, someone’s information is just as useful if not more useful than the person from which it came. As some people rise in society others have become obsolete. When Mick is betrayed by Houston he explains to Sybil that Houston has no need for Mick’s services “so long as he’s got my information” (57). Later, Wakefield is frightened at the prospect of his information being erased because he knows once his information is gone so too does he. Though some of society immensely benefit from the information, many more suffer as a result.


Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991.