History, Science and Familiarity in Difference Engine

The way history has been treated in Difference Engine begs us to ask why in early 1990s would such a throwback to the history be envisioned. Perhaps it was the economic climate of the time, with capitalism triumphing unequivocally, that made it a time fit for Steampunk, or maybe it was about the literary winds in those days, with authors like Harry Turtledove and Michael Moorcock. You can’t miss the thematic similarities between Difference Engine and the 1981 educational book, Elementary BASIC – Learning to Program Your Computer in BASIC with Sherlock Holmes , that combined adventure theme with Babbage’s analytical engine. However, it suffices to say that history was being sought, more like an alternative coin side to the cyberpunk genre, and steampunk offered an easy outlet. Similarly, the ‘science fetish’ displayed in the whole story (The most obvious example is how the whole story revolves around a plot that pivots around the proof of a theorem without ever mentioning in detail the real world moneymaking applications of it) could easily be viewed as an alternate looking glass for the increasingly application and money driven focus in the sciences of the capitalist era.

While the use of flesh and blood historical figures in fictional settings does lend a sense of familiarity to the reader, much like signboards on the way, I think that apart from engaging readers with the text by using names they have already heard (as was suggested in our class discussion the other day), Difference Engine does something else too. It brings into doubt the veracity of the ‘truth’ that history tells us. Historians and their versions shall add to but never completely erase the image of Babbage or Byron that a fictional ‘action’ world immerses us with. And I think that is the biggest takeaway of Difference Engine: Alienating and familiarizing us with our history, making us feel a part of “The Garden of Forking Paths“, as Borges called it.

Steampunk elements have today crawled into our culture (think Clockwork Angels, David Guetta, even World Of Warcraft), making it all the more important to ponder on what necessitated its origin and shape? What tinkering with history in the text impressed you the most? Could you think of any other motive for someone in 1990 (apart from making more money, of course) to use history as a Lego set?

And for those of us who are fascinated by it, I leave you with these images of a Steampunk themed cafe in South Africa here.

1 thought on “History, Science and Familiarity in Difference Engine

  1. I absolutely agree that one of the primary effects of Steampunk as a genre is to make us uncomfortable in our own perceptions of history and “truth.” In the Difference Engine in particular, we’re given a series of historical artifacts in the form of pictures and diaries, etc., and are asked to view them from a fictional present, despite having lived much of it in the events of the novel. And yet, even in living it, we missed these grains of truth– like the extent of Lady Byron’s reach and influence– which calls into question the validity of both the artifacts (primary sources, so to speak) and the in-the-moment events.

    As I said in some of our group discussion, though (and in my blog post), I really don’t think the novel could take place in any other period and carry the same thematic resonance. If TDE took place in the 1920s, the mob-rule element would carry though, but not the transitional element of pre-capitalist to capitalist economy, or the burgeoning interest in science. Anything pre-1789 would lack the appropriate fear of crowds. The Victorian element is very savvy, in my opinion.

    Historical fiction in general seems to be making a come-back, though (i.e. Barker’s Regeneration series), so I do think that what you said about alienating history has particular standing.

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