Computers in Steam and Brass


The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, New York: Bantam/Spectra, 429 pages, $19.95

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are the founders and foremost practitioners of "cyberpunk," a recent and much-debated movement in science fiction. Cyberpunk as a word has now passed into general usage, in two rather contradictory ways. In entertainment media, it refers to a style of downbeat, hard-bitten, and violent science fiction; in the computer field, it's used by hackers operating on the sometimes-illegal leading edge of technology.

But in the transition from self-conscious literary movement to mass acceptance, the word has lost its original intellectual baggage—for make no mistake about it, Gibson and Sterling have a definite intellectual, even political, agenda. Central to their work, and indeed to literary cyberpunk as a whole, are two essential ideas: First, that we are in the throes of the information revolution, a sea change quite as important and powerful as the industrial revolution, and that very little thought has been given to what that means for society. Second, that humanity as a whole is in the grip of forces we do not understand, forces that revolutionize both technology and culture every generation, and that unless we begin to grasp that fact, we may be heading for a grim and rather unhappy smash-up.

The Difference Engine has been touted as a drastic change in approach for these two writers, and in a sense it is. Their previous work has been Chandleresque; this book reads more like Trollope or Dickens (albeit with a level of sex that the Victorians would never have accepted, at least other than anonymously). Gibson and Sterling's previous work has dealt with the future; this deals with the past. But the central theme remains unchanged: Computers can make it far easier for society to control individuals—and, simultaneously, can vastly increase individual freedom.

This much is historical fact: Charles Babbage (1792–1871), a fellow of the Royal Society, devoted most of his life to the conception and construction of computing machinery, first his Analytical Engine, and later his Difference Engine. The Difference Engine was nothing less than what we now call a von Neumann machine. That is, it was a computer, complete with memory, instruction set, and output devices. Naturally, even electricity was then a novelty, and electronics inconceivable: Babbage's machines depended on mechanical devices—gears, rods, and cams taking the place of vacuum tubes or microchips.

Alas, historically, the machine tools of the day were unable to produce parts to Babbage's demanding tolerances, and the device was never realized. To contemporaries, the Babbage machine must have seemed an imaginative failure; with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Babbage, like da Vinci, was a genius out of his time. Equally brilliant was Lady Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who worked with Babbage and developed algorithms to be used with the never-completed Engine. She invented many of the basic principles used in modern software—the subroutine and the iterative loop, for example—and must be considered the world's first programmer, although none of her work ever ran since the hardware for which it was designed was never completed.

The story is a compelling one for a science-fiction writer: What would have happened if Babbage had been able to complete his machine? One readily imagines enormous steam-powered computing engines, rods and gears clacking away.

This astounding technology is one of The Difference Engine's strengths. The image of the Central Statistics Bureau's great brass engines, serviced by punk card-bearing technicians in "clean-room" lab coats whizzing about on roller skates within an enormous rococo Victorian pyramid is one that sticks in the mind.

The story itself is a fairly plebeian one: a Hitchcockian thriller, revolving around a mysterious box of punch cards. It exposes us to a mixed bag of well-drawn characters, from a prostitute and Luddite agitator to a paleontologist nearing the pinnacle of society in this alternate Britain. More interesting than the story is the society it explores.

In this world's 1830s, industrial agitation has given rise to the creation of the Industrial Radical Party, led by Lord Byron. Here, Gibson and Sterling are clearly anticipating the later creation of Labour, perhaps under the assumption that Difference Engine technology accelerates both industrial and political trends. In the ensuing convulsions, both Tories and Whigs are swept away, leading to a virtual Rad dictatorship under Byron. He creates the institution of "merit lordship," whereby titles are reserved for the most successful scholars and entrepreneurs of the realm. Meanwhile, America is balkanized, with California and Texas independent republics, the Civil War even more vicious than historically, and Mexico a French protectorate under the Emperor Maximilian.

In some aspects, it is an appealing world: Merit lordship, for instance, means that Britain offers upward mobility and great rewards for the scientists and businessmen who contribute most to society. (Contrast modern America, which reserves its adulation for actors, athletes, and rock stars.) But the Difference Engine has been far from a panacea. The Central Statistics Bureau maintains credit and criminal records on everyone, and God help the poor soul who runs afoul of the government. This is the era of debtors' prison, after all.

As with their previous work, Gibson and Sterling's intention is to show that the information revolution creates both opportunities for tyranny and the possibility of expanding human freedom. In their previous work, they have done so by extrapolating the changes computer technology is causing in our present society into the future; in The Difference Engine, they do so by showing how Victorian society might have been altered if computer technology had existed then.

Unfortunately, Babbage machines do not really suit their polemical purpose. Only governments and big businesses can afford Difference Engines, since they are so vast and expensive. (The early vacuum-tube computers took up rooms the size of gymnasia; think what a mechanical computer would be like.) Necessarily, therefore, Babbage machines are primarily instruments of social control. By contrast, modern computers are cheap enough that most people can own one: They are primarily instruments of individual liberation. Babbage machine technology, therefore, emphasizes the evil aspects of the information revolution, while diminishing the positive side. If Gibson and Sterling's intention is to show both the good and the bad, they have not chosen the best vehicle.

Moreover, it is strikingly odd that an ostensibly political work chooses to ignore the political developments of the time. The Difference Engine contains nothing about Cobden and Bentham, the evolution of the Whigs into a truly Liberal Party motivated by the ideals of Mill and Adam Smith, or the Anti-Corn Law League. And Byron himself seems quite unlike the young man who admired the French Revolution, who penned, "Who would be free themselves must strike the blow," and who died struggling for the liberty of Greece. Time and power change men, yet it is hard to see an elder Byron as a tyrant.

Admittedly, any book must choose its themes, and Gibson and Sterling are excellent on the texture of life and the scientific controversies of the day; yet by ignoring Victorian liberalism, they have again missed a way to drive their point home. One has the nagging feeling that ignorance of political developments, rather than conscious choice, is to blame.

On the whole, The Difference Engine is an ambitious undertaking and an imaginative and compelling work—but doesn't quite hit its mark. Gibson and Sterling have written better books in the past and, one may hope, will do so again.

Contributing Editor Greg Costikyan is a writer of fiction and nonfiction who has designed 23 commercially published games.