Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

The Difference Engine is a wonderful piece of speculative fiction set in the19th century where Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer of the same name succeeds in bringing forward the information revolution by over one hundred years. Part Victorian pastiche, part pseudo-historical document, it’s debatable whether it is a novel at all, though this is in no way a criticism. One of the more remarkable books I’ve read of late, (and my first proper foray into the genre of steampunk), The Difference Engine is something I’ll almost certainly return to.


The authors’ research is impressive and the characters only have to step into a great bright Whitechapel gin-palace, with glittering gold-papered walls flaring with fishtail gas-jets for me to be able to smell the sawdust on the floor. Sadly the drinks themselves are less impressive:

He’d bought her a noggin of honey gin. She sat beside him. “You did well, girl,” he said, and slid the glass towards her. The place was full of Crimean soldiers on furlough. Irishmen, with street-drabs hanging on them, growling red-nosed and screechy on gin. No barmaids here, but big bruiser bully-rock bartenders, in white aprons, with mill-knocker clubs behind the bar. “Gin’s a whore’s drink, Mick.” ... He sipped his gin-twist, rolled it over his tongue with an unhappy look, and swallowed. “Never mind, dear – they’ve cut this with turpentine or I’m a Jew.”

The book’s focus flits between Sybil Gerard, a ruined woman whose father was a famous Luddite, Laurence Oliphant, journalist and secret government agent, and Edward Mallory, discoverer of the Leviathan, a set of Brontosaurus bones in Wyoming. Mallory is first encountered at the Epsom Derby, attending the steam races:

He put it from his mind, seeing that drink was being sold from a striped canvas tent, men crowding the counter, wiping foam from their mouths. A thirst struck him at the sight of it. Veering around at trio of sporting-gents, crops under their arms, who argued the day’s odds, he reached the counter and tapped it with a shilling. “Pleasure, sar?” asked the barman. “A huckle-buff.” “Sussex man, sar?” “I am. Why?” “Can’t make you a proper huckle-buff, sar, as I haven’t barley-water,” the fellow explained, looking briskly sad. “Not much call for it outside Sussex...Mix you a lovely bumboo, sar. Much like a huckle-buff. No? A good cigar, then. Only tuppence! Fine Virginia weed.” The barman presented a crooked cheroot from a wooden box.

Poor fellow has to make do with beer, but before the racing is done, he has found himself mixed up with a wayward Ada Byron and in possession of a very dangerous box. In short, he is in trouble, and ends up under the protection of the mysterious Oliphant, who later rescues him from assault, with the help of five visitors from Japan. Oliphant then proposes that it’s tincture time:

“Under the circumstances,” Oliphant mused, “Dreadful hot day, a tiring foray after enemies of the realm – a small libation is in order.” He lifted a brass bell from the table and rang it. “So, let’s get friendly, eh? Nani o onomi ni narimasu ka?” The Japanese conferred, their eyes widening, with happy nods and sharp grunts of approval. “Uisuki...” “Whisky, an excellent choice,” said Oliphant.

Not that Mallory, a bluff lad from Lewes, wants protecting. He’s soon slipped his guardians and is off to the Cremorne Gardens, looking for a dollymop to take him home. First, he needs to get up a bit of Dutch Courage:

Mallory had two more whiskys at the platform’s bar. The whisky was cheap and smelled peculiar, either tainted by the Stink or doctored with hartshorn or potash or quassia. Or perhaps indian-berry, for the stuff had the colour of bad stout. The whisky shots sat in his stomach like a pair of hot coals.

Even so, he succeeds, and for the promise of a guinea, goes back to Whitechapel with a young lady called Hetty. He tries to explain how London works:

“London is a complex system out of equilibrium. It’s like – it’s like a drunken man, blind drunk, in a room with whisky bottles. The whisky is hidden – so he’s always walking about looking for it. When he finds a bottle, he takes a long drink, but puts is down and forgets it at once. Then he wanders and looks again, over and over.”

Unfortunately, the bottle is about to explode. A combination of the Great Stink and pea souper fogs has led to riots and looting. Mallory is going to wake up in Whitechapel with a dreadful hangover and a hellish walk back to Kensington through a city in the grip of Luddite revolt...

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