Mediamatic Magazine vol 6#1 Jules Marshall 1 Jan 1991

The Difference Engine

William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Victor Gollancz

LTD (pub) London 1990, ISBN 0-575-04762-3, English text, pp. 383, 13,95 pounds


The Difference Engine -

London, 1855. Turbocharged by the development of Charles Babbages steam-driven calculating engines, the Information Revolution has arrived a century early. The petroleum and electronics eras have been skipped (rock oil and electricity remain little-understood curiosities), but the coal-powered Industrial Revolution is in full swing. Britain, with its calculating cannons, steam dreadnoughts, machine guns and information technology, has extended its domination of the world. Dark lantern diplomacy has kept America a disunited continent, split into Union, Confederacy and the Republics of Texas and California; the oudaw Karl Marx has set up commune in Manhattan. ‘Clackers’ run punched cards of camphorated cellulose through precisely machined mechanical Difference Engines — Delicate things, temperamental, so she'd heard; better not to own one than not cherish it...dozens of knobbed brass columns gleamed, set top and bottom into solid sockets bored through the polished plates, with shinning levers, ratchets, a thousand steel gears cut bright and fine...

Their baby cyberpunk having grown into a strapping adolescent of a cultural movement in its own right, Gibson and Sterling have abandoned the Near Future as a mirror for contemporary society and looked over their shoulders for inspiration for their definitive what-if ? story of the Information Age — what if the Tory bluebloods who ran the British Empire, instead of crushing the 19th century Luddite unrest, had actually been swept from power by a coalition of middle-class mercantilists, meritocratic savants and emerging labour leaders ? What if the blueprints for Babbages mechanical computer had received the funds to be built?

Enter the Industrial Radical Party to make the necessary socio-political adjustments based on a fusion of Romanticism and the creed of Babbage: Science, Progress and Free Trade. Britain has become a secular society, raising Lord Darwins ideas to the new state religion; scientific meritocracy has ousted nepotism and birth as conditions for social advance: everyone has a chance: the Irish potato famine never happens — scientific methods of food distribution and transport allow the Lord Byrons Rads to prevent it (God bless the English sings a grateful and loyal people).

As part of the New Deal, every citizen has an ID number and every communication, every transaction between them is centrally recorded — how else does one run a society on scientific principles, after all ? While Personal Engines measure computational power in gear-yards, Westminter’s Central Statistics Bureau greedily devours gear-miles: For the sake of increased space, the buildings lower section was swollen out of true, like some great stone turnip. Its walls, pierced by towering smokestacks, supported a scattered forest of spinning ventilators, their vanes annoyingly hawk-winged. The whole vast pile was riddled top to bottom with thick black telegraph-lines, as though individual streams of the Empires information had bored through solid stone. A dense growth of wiring swooped down, from conduits and brackets, to telegraph-poles crowded thick as the rigging in a busy harbour.
With its monstrous animal /vegetable imagery Gibson, the writer, and Sterling, the researcher, (apparently, these Lords of the Net communicated by Fedex parcel and not electronic mail) gradually unfold a perverse and cancerous Victorian melodrama straight out of Bedlam; an industrial myth set in a mutant London of dollymops and mudlarks, of enobled industrialists and smuggly meritocratic scientists. The city has become a grossly polluted effluvium, its inhabitants choking on the by-products of a coal-based economy. This alternative society has spun-off in a frantic melee of mass production and pollution built with the aid of Engines on half-illuminated technical ignorance surpassing even that of our own (real) historical trajectory. As the savants politic-away inside their Kensington Palaces of Learning, corrupt bureaucracies co-opt the idealism and intelligence of its citizens to a police state, run by the Eye of the Central Statistics Bureau.

The story unfolds in a series of 'iterations' (computational procedures in which each repetition of a cycle of operations produces a result that approximates more closely to the desired result) by the Eye in a brilliant reanimation of the Victorian story device of the ‘omniscient narrator'. It uses the fives of several characters as lenses to focus on its own genesis and make the quantum jump to self consciousness, at the same time challenging the reader tell historical fact from extrapolation: the daughter of a Luddite agitator, ruined by a rising Rad MP; 'Leviathan' Mallory, the peoples Paleontologist, discoverer of the Brontosaurus and champion of the Catastrophist school of evolution; Lady Ada Byron (who really was the first computer programmer), daughter of the Prime Minister, a ‘clacking’ genius, the Queen of Engines. She is the author of a ‘Modus' programme, which she hopes will form the basis of a transcendent meta-system of calculatory mathematics: If we envision the entire system of mathematics as a great engine for proving theorems, then we must say, through the agency of the Modus (technique of self-referentiality), that such an engine lives, and could indeed prove its own life, should it develop the capacity to look upon itself. The Lens for such a self-examination is of a nature not yet known to us;yet we know that it exists, for we ourselves possess it.

Bit-parts go to Keats the clacker kinotropist, Disraeli the gossip columnist, an aristocratic Special Bureau agent, a Marxist vitrioleuse. a band of anarchists trying to foment revolution during the 'Great Stink’ of '55 and Lord Galton — patron of Criminal Anthropometry, espouser of eugenics and Parliamentary conspirator. Together, they illustrate the reduction of people to cogs in the vast machine of industrial London in the same way that Dickens’ Coketown of Hard Times illustrated the degradation of real Victorian life.

Rather inelegantly dubbed ‘Steampunk’ by the sci-fi press. The Difference Engine is actually still ‘cyber(netic)'. even if it's not ‘punk’ in it’s central themes: Information is power (Its what a cove knows that counts, ain't it, Sybil? More than land or money, more than birth. Information. Very flash); corruption of bureaucrasies; an H.G. Wellsian disbelief in the possibility of a science disconnected from politics; the idea that complex systems can make sudden transformations and speculation about a paradigm shift in artificial consciousness; that in an information society, existence inevitably becomes increasingly defined by the (official) information spoor we leave: names can be expunged, numbers lost, histories edited to suit specific ends. There is the same carefully constructed intricacy, readily extrapolated into daily fife, with attention paid to the iconic power of trade marks and the cultural mutagen of fashion; a radical interrogation of the virtual technologies at work in society.

In Sterling's words, Cyberpunk was the literary incarnation of Sos pop culture, paralleled in rock video, the hacker underground; in the jarring street tech of hip hop and scratch music...Its the meeting of previously separated worlds of high tech and the modern pop underground. Gibson, never felt comfortable with the term, reacted against the inevitable accretion oj meaning around it. He was never in the prediction business, he said. Rather, his books should be read as aids to the decoding of contemporary culture, simulations of the present rather than visions of the future.

Cyberpunk emphasizes the continuity between the contemporary world and the near future; not by insisting on the invariability or permanence of societal characteristics and values, but by following and continuing the development of fines of force already at work. In The Difference Engine, G&S have tried to show a similar continuity with a past-that-might-have-been by reverse-extrapolating the fines of force of our information society. We intuitively look towards the (British) Industrial Revolution for clues and analogies as to what havoc our Information Revolution may yet wreak. By returning to place the two side by side, G&S have made the process easier. Like the best cyberpunk, it bridges the gulf between the formal humanities of art and politics and the worlds of science, engineering and industry with a thought-provoking plausibility not found in any other literary genre of the 80s.

Tantafizingly, fife imitated art 150 years late last year when London’s Science Museum — one of the real fife Palaces of Learning — received a grant to try and make the first working model of Babbage's 4000-part Difference Engine using technology the Victorians would have had at their disposal.