The Difference Engine by William Gibson (Canadian) and Bruce Sterling (American) is a fictional account of the evolution of Charles Babbage’s theorized difference engine (mechanical calculator using decimal units).
The concept is a “what-if” scenario postulating what would happen, if during the Victorian era, Babbage’s machine not only worked, but was a fully functional computer. A full century ahead of its time, the engine required huge power and space requirements and used hard punch cards much like the mainframes of the ’60s.
It really is an epic book that would easily introduce the uninitiated to the “steampunk” genre. I love the idea of steampunk where modern-day gadgets (phones, computers, LCD Projectors) have been invented and created using Victorian technology (i.e. steam power).
The book follows three distinct characters: Sybil Gerard, Edward Mallory and Laurence Oliphant.
Sybil, is a daughter of disgraced Luddite leader who was opposed to the mechanization of England. She was reduced to surviving by becoming a courtesan. England has become a meritocracy where technological “savants” rule. Sybil teams up with a swashbuckling “adventurer” who passes some very secret punch-cards to her before his untimely death.
Not much of heard from her through the rest of the book. Instead, we follow Dr. Edward “Leviathan” Mallory for the bulk of the story. He is a paleontologist who well-known for his dinosaur finds in the Dakotas. Teaming up with Laurence Oliphant, they try to track down the culprit who is both trying to destroy Dr. Mallory’s life and reputation, as well as, stirring up class riots within London.
The punch-cards and the code they represent, do not actually reveal themselves throughout the book.
There is an implied idea that the code that within the cards Sybil had, created a self-referencial (I would say virus) program in the French Difference Engines that, when flash forward to 1991, created a “sky-net” like society of digitized humans run by the all-seeing “eye”.
I really wanted to love this book, but boy was the ending unsatisfying. I did enjoy much of the journey. What is was wondering was, except for a brief meeting of Sybil and Laurence at a cafe in Paris at the end, what purpose did Sybil serve? I found the book was pieced together in 3 parts (Sybil/Dr. Mallory/1991) and the two bookends were way too short without much integration into the main plot.
I think one must read this if you want to understand the whole steampunk canon, but be prepared for a little disappointment.