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.