|Analytical Engine, Science Museum in London (Bruno Barral)|
I got off to a creaking start, then flew through it like the pages were on fire, and ended slowly, scratching my head and wondering if I had missed something crucial along the way. Thankfully, after reading some other reviews, I realized I was not actually dense and inattentive, but that the book does in fact, leave some loose ends and that there is no "big reveal". This is not necessarily a criticism, although there is a bit of a let-down when the rollicking, "thrillery" part of the novel screeches to a sudden halt, and the vague epilogue begins. I found the pleasures of the novel to outweigh the disappointments; however, the pleasures will surely be few if you are truly without any knowledge of Victorian England, its history, politics, or literature. Some of the characters are fictional creations of the authors, some are fictional creations of a real Victorian author (characters in Benjamin Disraeli's novel, Sybil), and some are historical figures like Byron, Sam Houston, and John Keats -- with completely different biographies, of course. (One of the main characters, Laurence Oliphant, was a real person, but I didn't find that out until after I had finished it.)
If you like to dwell in the land of What If, you'll enjoy this novel. The basic premise is that Charles Babbage's analytical engine actually worked as theorized, kicking off an Information Age in Britain along with the Industrial Age, and generating a violent revolution that all but destroyed the aristocracy and substituted a meritocracy in which scientists, generally known as "savants," became the powerful elite in the ruling Radical Party. The real Lord Byron embraced revolutionary politics and died from a fever in 1824, contracted during the Greek Revolution. In our alternate history, he turned against his own class in Britain's revolutionary fervor and became prime minister in the 1850s, presumably losing interest in literary endeavors; his daughter Ada has become famous as the Queen of Engines, sharing in Babbage's success (her real addiction to gambling is retained here and is a major plot point). Just as the real British Empire reached its peak in the Victorian Era, this fictional Britain wields even more power, unchallenged by an America that has splintered into autonomous factions made up of The Republic of California, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States and the Union. Britain plays the sides off one another, even secretly arming the Native Americans to keep the former colony weak.
Technological innovations abound. There are steampunk variations of automobiles -- coal-powered steam "gurneys" ply the London streets along with horse-drawn equipages; there are mentions of airships and submersibles, speaking tubes, and mechanical wonders called kinotropes that can be manipulated to present video-like imagery. But the primary technological focus is the increasingly sophisticated power of the "engines" that fill government buildings and businesses, housing data on every Briton (everyone has a Citizenship number linked to their file), creating a nascent surveillance society reminiscent of the NSA.
A leading young savant named Edward Mallory, who has discovered the first brontosaurus in a British-led expedition to Wyoming, has come home something of a hero. A risky wager on the outcome of a steam gurney race at Epsom has also made him well-to-do, but he becomes mixed up in a deadly scheme aimed at acquiring a mysterious box of punch cards, first seen in the possession of a radical adherent of the exiled Texas President Sam Houston, then in the hands of Ada Byron herself, who Mallory rescues from the clutches of kidnappers. She disappears after making him promise to hide the box until she can retrieve it safely. Unfortunately for Mallory, he has made enemies that will stop at nothing to get at whatever powerful program exists on this set of cards. That is about as much of the plot as I can attest to. I'm still not entirely sure what was on those damned cards, but that hardly matters. Dropping into this strangely warped version of Victorian London is its own kind of fun. John Keats is a well-known "clacker" -- specifically as a manipulator of kinotrope machines -- and Byron is a politician who ruthlessly "disappeared" his political enemies at the height of revolution, even exiling his opponent, the unfortunate Percy Bysshe Shelley, to the island of St. Helena. Polluted London has succumbed to the Great Stink, horrifyingly described in all its odorous and disgusting details.
The Difference Engine isn't perfect, but if you enjoy any of the above aspects of the story (which I've been rather long-winded in trying to describe), it's definitely worth a vacation read. You might have to look up some weird Victoriana along the way if you're not an aficionado of the period. More tech-minded people will probably be amused by completely different things than I've highlighted here. One last fun fact for me was finding out that William Gibson grew up in southwest Virginia, not far from my own hometown. How did this fact escape me? I thought I knew all the famous writer connections to my old stomping grounds. Pretty cool.