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).