One of the most effective uses of setting in The Difference Engine is Gibson and Sterling’s ability to manipulate the image of the mob. This isn’t to say that the image isn’t possible or salient in contemporary consciousness, but the nineteenth century was all but obsessed with it. Throughout the novel, G&S describe the Luddites and other rebel groups as Jacobins, calling to mind popular protest in the French Reign of Terror (1793-4). The subsequent European revolutions of 1848 don’t seem to have occurred in the world of the novel (though some of its real-life results are present, like Louis Napoleon’s reign); the reader’s knowledge of this absence is a tool to build tension and expectation for this social pressure to come to a head. Similarly, the Chartist rebellions of Britain (1838-48) are absent; democratization has occurred to some extent in the novel, and so leftist politics (and mobs) focus on labor instead, as illustrated by Walter Gerard and the anachronistic Luddites.
In a scene that parallels Chase’s consideration of the wasp nest in Neuromancer, Mallory remembers a swarm of earthworms witnessed while walking with Charles Darwin, describing them as “churning in catastrophic frenzy, till the soil roiled and bubbled like a witches’ brew” (130). The worms—the mob—are portrayed as chaotic and supernatural, the antithesis for the society Mallory claims to inhabit. Later on the same page, though, Mallory neutrally describes the Central Statistics Bureau as a honeycomb—a hivemind, like the worms, but one that is orderly and productive. This foreshadows a similar image later in the novel, wherein Mallory praises a flock of birds for their shape, at one point a “movement of a tidal surge” (183). On the next page, he steps over a number of dead starlings on the street, indifferent to the creatures as individuals.
Mallory builds himself a paradox (one of many): the people as a harmonious, aesthetic unit, and as a cruel horde of sans-culottes; as self-conscious individuals and as “numbers.” The “witches’ brew” boils over during the skirmishes of the London Stink, wherein Mallory both seeks out the crowd in the form of a party of prostitutes, and, once sated, reviles the anarchy on the streets.
What does this say about the concept of the “global network” that Gibson has consciously worked with in the past? In the late 19th century—before the eugenics of the 20th, and with the mobs of the late 18th/early 19th still fresh on minds—it would not have been desirable to connect the classes by knowledge or any other singularity. Even with the fast-forwarding of early to late capitalism in the novel, how much resistance would networking meet amongst the upper echelons of Victorian society?