Science fiction novels rarely retain their power after nearly a quarter of a century. Yet Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine remains a highly readable classic. Back in 1990 it set the standard for the Steampunk genre, and even today, it is hard to beat.
Set in an alternate universe where Babbage's mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, worked, the world has headed down a different trouserleg of time. Britain retains its world power status at the head of a large Empire. America has failed to unify itself, Britain being firm allies with the Confedarcy. North of America, Canada is replaced by a British protectorate. On the continent, France is a firm ally, and Ireland, following a policy of friendship and solidarity from the British government, that avoided the Great Famine, is a firm part of the Union.
Such differences feel real enough to make the novel work. But what really helps is the exciting story line, as London is engulfed in smog during the Great Stink, revolution breaks out. Neo-Luddites and the poor rise up, smashing symbols of government power, destroying machinary and driving out the rich. Sadly, the revolution is defeated by the novel's heroes, yet the uprising itself is vivdly portrayed, the characters carefully drawn with sympathy and solidarity.
Given the depth of its research, readers will be forgive for spending much of the novel trying to find in-jokes and parallels. I particularly liked the idea of Karl Marx leading a Commune in New York, while the richest man in England, Lord Engels, comments sympathetically from his industrial empire in Manchester. But the alternative time-line, with Lord Byron leading a popular revolution against the aristocracy, and Britain's global power centring on her mastery of technology for military and economic domination, is as much of a key part of the books' attraction.
Many people will have already read this classic novel. If you haven't and you are a fan of well written SF, give it a try.
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