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.

The Difference Engine and the Mob

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?