The difference engine
(William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, 1990)

Soon after starting this book, I thought I had a masterpiece in my hands. The quality of writing, the characterization, and the period details are all excellent; the story is initially exciting and gripping.

Unfortunately and frustratingly, somewhere along the line the authors seem to lose their sense of direction, the story wanders, and eventually just peters out aimlessly. What a shame. I can well understand that this book was nominated for the Nebula Award, but failed to win it.

It's an alternate-history story, set mostly in England in the mid-19th century, an England transformed by the Industrial Radical Party that has taken over the country and accelerated the industrial revolution with the aid of mechanical steam-powered computers descended from Babbage's designs.

The story mostly deals with the lives of more-or-less ordinary people caught up in the events of the times, although there is a common thread to it: the pursuit of a lost computer program of mysterious properties, stored on a set of punched cards as all programs are in that scenario.

It's worth mentioning that the two American authors have done their research thoroughly and made a very creditable job of portraying an altered Victorian England. The regional and class differences that would be so significant in that world are given due weight. Of course I have no personal experience of the 19th century, but nothing struck me as obviously wrong, and the level of detail is impressive.

Written in August 2008