HomeAll postsDifference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine

A review by Nalini Haynes

The Difference Engine is a steampunk novel beginning with Sybil, an elderly woman, who remembers the events of 1855 when she was a dolly-mop or whore by profession after her father’s disgrace and death. The next 3 chapters or ‘iterations’ centre around Edward Mallory, a savant (paleontologist) who has been entangled in political intrigue. Lawrence Oliphant claims to be a journalist but is a government agent, and Fraser is a special branch police officer.

It seems history went awry at the development of the difference engine, where it worked in the nineteenth century and altered the course of history after Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. The blending of the Victorian era with 20th century developments was creative and entertaining. References to the ‘eye’ watching appears to refer to 1984 style Big Brother watching through computer monitoring of citizens who all have numbers and files.

Unfortunately the writing was uneven between chapters. I believe that one author wrote the odd numbered chapters and the other the even numbered chapters, which were then woven into a novel. I prefered the odd numbered chapters, finding the story flowed and the characters were more engaging. In chapter 4 there is a crudely explicit encounter between Mallory and a whore (author’s word) which appeared to serve no purpose other than to provide a tenuous link between Mallory and the characters in the first chapter. Chapter 6 appears to be post-modern philosophy as narrative.

Both authors have won prestigous SF awards for their writing as well as being credited with being founding cyberpunk writers, so The Difference Engine is part of the ‘Masterwork’ series. Being early steampunk, this novel will appeal to students of SF history as well as fans of steampunk and SF.


This article was previously published in Dark Matter issue 3, April 2011, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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