Friday, June 13, 2008

The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

Science Fiction as a genre has its strong experimental factions, but it is rarely innovative in terms of the sentence itself. SF writers are heralded primarily as "idea men," and the individuals who do cross over into the mainstream canon, such as Phillip K. Dick or even H.P. Lovecraft, are allowed their turgid prose in lieu of more conceptual interests. There are exceptions, primarily in the New Wave of the sixties, of which Thomas M. Disch, J.G. Ballard and Samuel Delany all experimented within the increment of the sentence as well as the broader scope of narrative or thematic. But more often than not, the exemplars of progressive science fiction are those who utilize the conventional sentence to build strange and luminous configurations. Phillip K. Dick's sentences may be modest, but his best novels and stories most definitely are not

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1991 novel, "The Difference Engine" is by no means a modest novel. Over four hundred pages dense, heavy on the dialogue and full of baroque plot developments, "The Difference Engine" reads in the rollicking manner of the old-fashioned novel of real life. The book is an immersive read that vividly creates a certain time period- an alternate reality London of 1855 where Charles Babbage's experimental computers were, in fact, successful, and Lord Byron has ascended to the Prime Ministry. The book succeeds in the above-mentioned sense, it's great fun. I plowed through its bulk in less than a week, oftentimes shirking a number of increasingly pressing responsibilities to find out the next development in this stream-punk pastiche. Pleasantly, in addition to the obvious pleasure inherent in reading "The Difference Engine," there is also a great deal underlying the subtext, some of which even runs counter to the textual bulk of the novel.

The book follows over-lapping threads of various lengths. The three shorter stories and all of the characters therein are connected by the pursuit of a wooden box containing some mysteriously punched cards, the sort of noir-ish McGuffin favored by Gibson in his own solo novels. The first, and shortest, of the three interlocking "stories" concerns Sybil Gerard, a prostitute and the daughter of a deceased Luddite agitator. This section leisurely takes its time setting the scene and introducing the strange, but impeccably realized alternate history world of the book. It isn't until almost fifty or sixty pages into the novel that things really start moving. The characters, even at this early juncture of the novel, serve mostly as the glue connecting the larger concerns of the story and its impressive scope.

The second section, and by far the largest, follows Edward Mallory, a savant paleontologist responsible for discovering the fossils of a Brontosaurus in Wyoming. This section contains some of the best passages of the book. At one point, polluted fog dubbed the Stink descends on London. Mallory wanders a city that has deteriorated into bedlam and runs afoul of some of the novel's best characters, such as the King, a bill-poster who almost comical entrepreneurship allow the authors to tackle advertising, information over-stimulation, class and many of the books other quote unquote big subjects.

Unfortunately, this middle passage also includes a protracted night with a prostitute that seems to primarily provide some steamy sexual content and goes on for a little too long. This story climaxes with a search for the mysterious Captain Swing dragged out into an over-long gunfight replete with explosions and hyperbolic derring-do. I prefer the book in the extended sections where the characters simply wander about, piecing together the secrets of the elaborately conceived world about them.

Mallory is a sympathetic character for most of this central section, if a tad petit bourgeois. In fact, it's precisely because he is so painfully middle-class that he works as a character. But at some point, Mallory transforms, along with his two brothers and the otherwise reliably well drawn policeman, Ebenezer Fraser, into the sort of tough-as-nails, resourceful action hero of a Heinlein novel. I grant that this development was most likely tongue-in-cheek on the part of the authors, but the gunfight didn't offer enough satire for me to be entirely convinced of it.

The final story follows Laurence Oliphant, a spy and perhaps mystic, as he hunts down the box from the beginning of the novel and (mostly) wraps up the loose ends. This section also brings to the forefront (as much as possible) a quasi-conspiracy theory/surveillance thread that lends some dark pathos to the rest of the novel. I will return to the over-mentioned conspiracy theory and issues of surveillance momentarily.

I was impressed by the books sly take on the science fiction tendency of "world-building." From Clark Ashton Smith to Lord Dunsany, early fantastic literature often concerned itself with the development of a shared mythology. Of course, the most famous instance of this is Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings," which has influenced a string of imitators from the sixties all the way to the present. Gibson and Sterling graft this predilection of fantastic literature with a clever twist on the modernist concern for the city and how it affects and changes life.

London is the main character of "The Difference Engine" in the same way Berlin is the protagonist of "Berlin Alexanderplatz" or how Dublin figures in the oeuvre of James Joyce. This is complicated as this very modernist quest for locality, which is exemplified by the book's strange, steam-punk version of London, is confronted with a postmodern indeterminancy - a nexus of information, misinformation and surveillance. The narration itself, as much as London, is the main character of the story. Throughout the novel, the narration becomes successively more aware of itself, before reaching the aesthetic peak of the novel – its modus. Within this pastiche of forged historical documents it is, if only elliptically, revealed that the novel charts, more than the lives of Sybil, Mallory or Oliphant, the growing self-awareness of an A.I. consciousness. This engine doubles both as a self-aware computer program, and as a text that is conscious of itself as a text.

Now that I've finished this book, I intend to restart the City Lights Artaud anthology I began and stopped reading last fall, but I was so impressed by "The Difference Engine" that I wanted to just pick up another book by either author. Gibson and Sterling are both very well known within the SF community, and even to some extent outside it (poet Ron Silliman is an out-spoken advocate of the two, particularly Sterling), but I can't help feeling they deserve an even larger audience. I have a copy of Sterling's "Holy Fire" that I picked up last time I was in Syracuse, and after I get through a couple more books, I intend to read it.

"The Difference Engine" is highly recommended.

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