‘The Difference Engine’: A Steampunk Classic Continues to Inspire


In 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published their groundbreaking novel The Difference Engine, an alternative history classic that changed the world of imaginative literature forever. The Difference Engine, now considered a forebearer of Steampunk, posits a world in which mathematician Charles Babbage succeeds in creating a programmable mechanical computer, an invention that revolutionizes nineteenth century English society. Seemingly overnight, the old power structures of peerage and privilege collapse with the rise of the new Industrial Radical Party. Proto-hackers called Clackers learn to manipulate these new computers in new and radical ways, and technological progress begins to move forward at an astonishing rate. Scientists are risen to peerage on the basis on their accomplishments. Steam-driven machinery appears on the streets and the battlefield.

Great Britain’s technological revolution has diverse implications for the world stage, with the United States fracturing into several small nations and Napoleon’s empire, an ally, occupies Mexico. The world is a different place, but not an entirely peaceful one; rival governments jockey for power through force of arms and diplomacy. When a set of computer punch cards rumored to be the key to a powerful mathematic formula catches the eye of government leaders, a chase begins to find them before they fall into enemy hands.

The Difference Engine found a receptive audience when it was released. Readers were intrigued by this world of mechanical wonders, and critics applauded the authors for their skill at creating an engaging, believable alternative history. Many today credit the work for bringing Steampunk fiction to a mainstream audience.

Steampunk, while never fully fading away, has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance over the last several years. The subgenre has inspired artists, movie-makers and musicians, with large conventions and gatherings attended by enthusiasts and professionals alike. The literary arts have seen the greatest area of Steampunk innovation, with authors bringing traces of the genre to every corner, from horror and fantasy to science fiction. Lia Habel is one of them. She is the author of Dearly, Departed, a steampunk zombie romance due to be released this October. Habel, like many, counts The Difference Engine as a powerful influence in her work.

“Years ago, when I was tooling about online in various steampunk chatty-type areas, someone playfully assigned my avatar the title ‘dollymop.’ Rather than take offense, I was immediately tickled – once I verified that it was, indeed, a reference to The Difference Engine,” said Habel. “There’s something both amusing and frighteningly interesting about the idea of steampunk enthusiasts using MMORPGs to model the type of world that Gibson and Sterling created, down to the architecture and (in the case of my avatar) clothing and personality. It’s this blend of retro-digital and analog technologies that I pursue in my own steampunk aesthetic – one I’d have only a partial understanding of without the foundation laid by authors like Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson.”

M.K. Hobson, author of The Native Star and The Hidden Goddess, also cites The Difference Engine as a source of inspiration:

“I remember the first time I read The Difference Engine. It was just after I graduated from college.

You know what I remember most about reading The Difference Engine? It made me feel like an idiot. To be fair, this was when I was 22, so I often felt like an idiot. But even now, twenty years later, as I recall the staggering breadth of knowledge displayed within that book, the vast overwhelming scope of the historical revision Sterling and Gibson undertook, I feel tiny and dim and underpowered, like a Christmas tree light. A Christmas tree light lit by envy. Because as I read that book, I realized that’s how I wanted to make readers feel someday. Like idiots. (Stay with me here.) What more wonderful gift can you give a reader than an awareness of how much more out there is to know? Great fiction is challenging. It asks something of you. It asks you to recognize how much you have to learn, how much there is yet to discover.

“People don’t get to feel like idiots as much these days. Google is always right there, and that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach (when you realize you should know who the hell Isambard Kingdom Brunel is, but you don’t, you just don’t) is a thing of distant past. But feeling like an idiot is the gateway to experiencing wonder. So I think we’ve lost something more important than we knew.

“Anyway, that’s what I remember about The Difference Engine. That, and Karl Marx as the boss of Communist Manhattan. Because I mean seriously, that’s just cool.”

This year marked the 20th anniversary of The Difference Engine‘s publication, and publisher Spectra, an imprint of Random House, has released a new edition of this influential book. Featuring an introduction by Cory Doctorow and commentary by the authors, this new printing is sure to influence an entirely new generation of authors. Look for it online or at your favorite brick-and-mortar bookshop.