WEEK 6: Gibson and Sterling’s “The Difference Engine”

This is an open thread on the first ~115 pages of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1985). This thread will remain open until 9pm on Monday, 19 October.

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26 thoughts on “WEEK 6: Gibson and Sterling’s “The Difference Engine”

  1. A few weeks ago, during our discussion of Jules Verne, I asked you what you thought was steampunk about Around the World in Eighty Days. Now that we’ve been talking about Victorian novels for the past three weeks, though, I want us to flip that question on its head. What seems “Victorian,” in other words, about The Difference Engine? Which elements of the novel — either its form or its content — strike you as similar to the Victorian novels we’ve read so far? Conversely, how might the parts of the novel you’ve read so far expand upon, complicate, or challenge some of the “Victorian” elements we’ve encountered in Verne and Wells?

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    1. Kelsey Jacobi

      The Difference Engine and Around the World in Eighty Days both involve betting on technologies that are given doubtful odds. The narrator of Around the World in Eighty Days notes that “[b]etting is part of the English character” (Verne 23). Fogg’s journey to travel the world in eighty days using technology such as trains and steamers caused a flurry of “heavy betting on the risks involved” of his journey, and in this way he “was treated like a racehorse” (Verne 23, 24). However, the odds for Fogg diminished, “first at five to one, then ten, the odds then became twenty, fifty, and a hundred to one,” as people doubted he could succeed (Verne 24). In The Difference Engine, Edward Mallory risks a great deal of money on a wager for the Zephyr to win a race of machines. By its appearance, the Zephyr seemed unlikely to win, as the other machines “dwarfed the slender, peculiarly delicate stack” of the Zephyr, and even Mallory doubted its success, watching the race “full of fatal resignation” (Gibson and Sterling 111, 112). Both Fogg and the Zephyr (and Mallory) win the race in the end though the odds of their winning seemed low. This similarity shows how betting was seen as part of Victorian life, and in these novels, betting involves technology, whether it is the technology Fogg depended on to travel the world or the machine race that Mallory watched. Why do both of these novels in Victorian settings include betting on technology? Do you think it is a comment on how the power of technology should not be underestimated, as those who bet on Fogg and the Zephyr’s chance to win underestimated technology? Why do people doubt the ability of certain technologies in these novels, and what does this imply?

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    2. Blandon Tang

      Within the first section of the Difference Engine that we have covered there is already a more ‘steampunk’ feel to the novel than Around the World in Eighty Days. Gibson and Sterling both seem to trend more towards Wells style of writing science fiction rather than Vernes style. Specifically, Vernes often tends to expand on feasible and plausible technologies whereas in The Difference engine we are introduced to many strange and novel inventions such as the kinotrope. However, despite this difference in technology shown, both The Difference Engine and Around the World in Eighty days both have shared Victorian characteristics. Namely, many of the characters share a mutual love for betting. With Fogg in Vernes novel, betting on himself and Mallory in The Difference Engine betting on races. Many of these Victorian characteristics are also shared, such as the way the Americas is portrayed as a savage land. Additionally we see an almost hierarchical class structure present in both novels, where it is seemingly a very difficult task to move between classes without great wealth.

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    3. Zach Morrison

      Similar to Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine espouses the various technological triumphs of the the nineteenth century British Empire, including the locomotive steam engine and printing press. However, departing from Verne and other Victorian works, this novel rejects the idea the the printing press and other technological advancements in the field of communication and media elevates the general populous by creating a nation of educated readers. Instead, it displays the ways in which these newly developed technologies can be used to spread propaganda, influencing public perception
      according to personal biases and limiting the dissemination of information.

      Contrary to the Victorian obsession with social status and economic gain, early on in The Difference Engine information is prioritized as a human being’s ultimate resource: “It’s what a cove knows that counts, ain’t it, Sybil? More than land or money, more than birth.
      Information. Very Flash” (Gibson and Sterling 11). The novel then demonstrates how Mick Radley is able to manipulate the press and fictional kinotrope in order to garner popular support for the General: “I’m the one as runs Manchester’s newest and best through the kino
      for him, sweetens the press and British public opinion” (Gibson and Sterling 39). Here, the printing press and kino are figured as tools for controlling public opinion rather than informing it, and are therefore powerful weapons that manage the circulation of information.

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    4. Mark Taylor

      The Diference Engine, as a novel, challenges the ideas of these older steampunk texts in regards to Victorian society. This is not the prim and proper England of Phileas Fogg’s Reform Club, nor the privileged dinner party of the noble Time Traveler and his honoured guests, but the stinking underbelly of Victorian society: the drabs, the bob-tails, the Rads, and the copper narks of the streets, fighting and scratching and struggling to form their own place within this society. These too are not the beautiful, efficient machines of the past texts either. The delicate little time machines of ivory, crystal and nickel are pushed away for the great lumbering excavator machines of the underground (57), the smokeless trains sliding through tunnels like eels (58), the imperfect kinotropes, jamming on their spindles (45). This is a place of terrible truths: that nothing works perfectly, that progress can be terrifying as well as awe-inspiring, and that the world trundles on regardless of personal strife, sometimes churning up the unfortunates within its mechanisms.

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  2. My Thanh Huynh

    Within the first #115 pages of The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, I found out that the first 50 pages or so were to be a bit dragged out as there was a lot of mystery to me as to why the characters role in the book were so vague and not specified immediately. We are normally used to novels where we know exactly what roles the character plays very early within the novel. In the Time Machine for example by H. G. Wells, we are introduced to the Time Traveller immediately and know his role. Not only that, the name “The Time Traveller” practically gives away his role later on within the novel. Why do you think that the authors of the Difference Engine have created such mystery and very slowly introduces the characters specific role to the reader? “She caught up and took his arm, past red and white carcasses dangling from their black iron hooks, beef and mutton and veal” (15) and “Mick stopped beside a wooden trestle- table, kept by a squinted- eye widow in bombazine, the stump of a clay pipe protruding from her thin lips” (15). The authors describe the Victorian clothes and culture to a great extent. Do you believe that they are compensating the characters roles at the beginning to further our knowledge on the clothes and culture of the Victorian period? Do you believe that with these vivid descriptions, the reader is trying to create an emotional relationship between the reader and the novel? There also seems to be a few references on “the new” such as, “The skyline west of Whitechapel was spikey with construction cranes, stark steel skeletons painted with red lead against the damp….There was a distant huffing of excavation, and a tremulous feeling below the pavement, of vast machines cutting some new underground line” (14). In this particular passage, Sybil seems intrigued by the vast machines around her as she seems to be very excited about the changes that will be happening around her. She senses everything from the trembling underneath her foot and huffing sounds of the machines as they rebuild “the new”. In our modern society, we drive or walk by these “vast machines” on a regular basis with no disregard to “the new” unless “the new” personally satisfies and makes our life easier. Do you believe that we as a society take these changes and vast machines for granted?

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    1. Your connective to how modern society views these “vast machines” is very thought provoking. It seems that in our society, only the most extravagant machines get any sort of attention and that we have indeed become accustomed to some certainly impressive works of engineering. Even the most impressive machines, however, tend to fade into cultural obsolescence. For example, when the Large Hadron Colider was first unveiled, the world marveled at the accomplishment. Now, despite its continued importance in the world of physics research, the LHC has seemed to have lost its status as “the new.”

      In the novel’s Victorian setting, each machine seems to be of much greater cultural importance than comparable devices are in our conventional western society.

      As for the descriptions of the environments, clothing, and appeal of the culture in The Difference Engine, i find that the ample description lends to a more vivid world, allowing the reader to truly become engrossed, facilitating their total immersion.

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  3. Mollie Grill-Donovan

    The first 115 pages of The Difference Engine are dripping in Victorian themes and tropes. The First Iteration starts by looking back from 1905 to 1855, so the time period is accurate for the Victorian era. Firstly, the idea that Sybil Gerard used to be someone who used to be of a sort of prominence, but was “ruined” (10) by a man named Egremont and is now a ‘dollymop’ or courtesan provides the Victorian idea of the Fallen Woman. The Fallen Woman symbolized a woman’s loss of innocence and was and idea often associated with prostitutes. Sybil even calls herself a fallen women when she says “but fallen women get ruined, d’ye see?” (28). Secondly, there are references to the Decadence movement in the character Mick Radley. Mick is described as “Dandy Mick” (6) and someone who “dressed very flash” (6). Dandies usually considered themselves decadents and, like Mick, would place a great deal of importance on appearance. Moreover, Mick seems to embrace a very decadent lifestyle, he dines in seemingly expensive places like the “Argyll Rooms” (30), and shops at “Aaron & Sons” (13) where there are copious amounts of merchandise such that the rooms are “stuffed” (13) or “crammed” with them. Mick also pursues a forbidden sort of pleasure with the prostitute Sybil. Decadents in the Victorian era faced their share of resistance by people who thought this valuing of pleasure represented a degeneration in morals. Additionally, Sybil’s father was a “Luddite agitator” (6). Luddites were typically working class people in the 19th century who resisted advancements in technology. The novel, however, subverts typical Victorian social class by changing who is part of the Aristocracy. In the novel a Lordship is now rewarded to people who are leading the scientific and industrial charges, like Charles Darwin (14). Other than a emphasis on rapidly progressing steam technology, do any of these typical Victorian themes or ideas occur in the Time Machine or Around the World in 80 Days? I would say that you could argue that the Eloi in Wells’ novel could be a commentary on this idea of the decadent lifestyle gone too far. The Eloi are result of humans have placing too much emphasis on beauty and pleasure and have declined so much that they have degenerated. On that note, does anyone see any similarities between these themes and Verne’s novel?

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  4. Ashley Dhillon

    After reading the first 115 pages of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, I found that the introduction to the characters was not very direct as we are normally used to in previous novels that we have been looking it. The first thing that I noticed about the novel was the time period in which its taking place from 1855-1905 which was around this Victorian era. When the character Sybil was first introduced there wasn’t as much emphasize put on her as well, in comparison to what we have been reading and her name was given as well. In the Time Machine, we were just introduced to the character as the “The Time Traveller” but there was information given about who he was. Even in regards to Around the World in 80 Days, Phileas Fogg was introduced too in a lot of detail about how he is and just about his character. Another element was what they were wearing and the context it was described “Silk nightshirt all frothy with lace down the front” (6) The way the description was given about the clothing that was even used for sleeping was something that you would picture someone in this Victorian era wearing. The language that is also used like how Sybil talks to Mike she refers to him as a gentleman “a very flash gentleman”(4) she is using language that one would also see more into this Victorian era, gentleman now isn’t a word that we would now use but back in the day it was more common to talk to someone in that sense. “Older buildings were furred with scaffolding; what wasn’t being torn down, it seemed to make way for new, was rebuilt in its image.” (14). Another thing that is being shown based on the quote above is this new technology coming into existence, while they are getting rid of the old and introducing the new, I would see that’s in similarity as the Time Machine, because that’s a sort of technology that would be considered something new because there wouldn’t be a lot of people that would have it or had the idea of building it. All three novels that we have read all do have in common this idea of having different types of technology or new technology being introduced. The introduction of this new technology sets the whole image of this Victorian era, when big changes are coming about. Based on the attitude on the characters in the novel and previous novels, is this new technology being introduced into our society something that will always continue to grow in the way that individuals in this Victorian Era would have thought or does it take a different turn in modern society?

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  5. Danielle Hillje

    William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine uses the Victorian period as the setting for the novel, and it does this in a number of ways. To start, the audience is given a specific date for start of the novel: January 15th, 1855. However, it is one thing to tell the reader that the novel is set in 1855, and another to “show” it. Gibson and Sterling make references to Victorian people, places and behavioral habits.

    Mick Radley exclaims “Jove” (12), which is a feature of earlier Victorian works. For example, characters in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which was written in 1847-1848, typically exclaim “by Jove” (First appears in Chapter 4. If you search the plain text version on Project Gutenberg, there are more examples: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/599). Jove (also known as Zeus) was the head god in the Roman pantheon. The assumption, therefore, is that this expression is the Victorian equivalent for the modern “Oh God”; however, Christians during the period would likely have found in blasphemous to use the Christian god in a (typically) negative expression, hence the use of the “pagan” equivalent.

    Sybil reads the Illustrated London News (21) which was a Victorian newspaper. Our library actual has a subscription to the newspaper: http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/iln/dispBasicSearch.do?prodId=ILN&userGroupName=ucalgary
    (If the link doesn’t work: Search “Illustrated London News” in the Library Search Bar, and it will be under “Journals”)

    Unfortunately, they do not have an edition for January 15, 1855; the closest edition is January 13, 1855. This could mean that the newspaper Sybil reading on January 15th is fictitious (not all Victorian newspapers produced daily news), or it could mean that a copy of that edition did not survive.

    Gibson and Sterling use 19th century “slang” in their character’s dialogue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:
    “Copper’s nark” (7): first seen used in the 1859, a “Copper’s nark” was a police informer. (OED “nark, n.” 2a)
    “Dollymop” (18): first documented in 1834, a “dollymop” was a “drab” meaning “a slut” or a “prostitute” (OED, “Drab”, 1a, b).
    “Bobtail” (18): likely used in this context to meaning the “common[ers]” or low-class rabble, which was popularly used from 1800 onwards (OED, “bobtail n.”, 5).
    Even the “Rads” (22) that are continually mentioned was a slang term for “Radicals” in the early to mid 1800s (OED “Rad n.1.).

    However, does the use of these historical “facts” blind readers to the changes the authors have made? The historical “Rads” did not have “Government machinery” (7) capable of digging up information of “Sybil Gerard”(7), yet the usage of these historical facts allows readers to believe that such things may have been possible in the Victorian period.

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  6. Barbara Baker

    Stylistically, I found the Difference Engine, diverged greatly from both the Time Machine and Around the World in Eighty Days. The two Victorian examples deal with magnificent events in clear matter-of-fact styles. The narratives of the Victorian novels are plot-driven and are from upper-class male perspectives.

    The narrative of the Difference Engine makes a marked departure from this style. Although it deals with the Victorian time period, the writing style is quite modern. The writing is fluid and mysterious. Vivid details emerge amongst subtle inferences. Information is not given immediately or freely. This style is apparent in the initial description of the novel’s first protagonist, “these hands consist of tendons, tissue, jointed bone. Through quiet processes of time and information, threads within the human cells have woven themselves into a woman. Her name is Sybil Gerard” (1). This description is beautiful but does little to actually describe who this woman is. Her role as a prostitute is only deciphered from her describing her role as one of Mrs. Winterhalter’s “girls” and her conversation with Mick Radley about “dollymopping” (5). Also, unlike the Victorian novels, the narrative is third person limited. The intimate thoughts of one character at a time are explored. During the murders in the hotel room the scene is described as “a dream to Sybil, or a play she watched, or some kino-show wrought with balsa-bits so numerous, so tiny, and so cleverly worked as to blur reality” (78). This description is wholly from Sybil’s personal perspective. Also, the fact that a female prostitute is the narrator at all moves this novel away from the other two novels. It gives an entirely different perspective from that of the previous novels, which are white-males. It is also notable that the Difference Engine uses slang that is not present in the other novels. As previously mentioned prostitution is referred to as “dollymopping” and “bobtail” (5). Also Mick Radley is referred to repeatedly as “flash” (5). This again proves how different the styles of the novels are.

    Therefore, I find that although the Difference Engine works within a Victorian setting the form of the novel marks it as modern and in doing so complicates many of its Victorian elements.

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    1. Bryce Lanz

      Disagreement could be made at the novel “The Difference Engine” showing stylist differences from its predecessors. The introduction of Sybil Tournachon as she is to eventually become is a leaf straight from Wells as she is framing her own narrative, a passage back in time through her memory. And though the point is correct that the First Iteration is arguably female-driven, following this male protagonists, Mallory and Oliphant, control the flow of the story through their perspectives, which are chauvinistic in both inner monologue(250) and actions towards women(251, 270, 445-448). This first iteration seems to fall onto Sybil, due that she is the only bystander to the events the author wishes for us to have knowledge of. Even during the scene in Paris when she is before Oliphant, she is depicted for us as weak, afraid, and requiring protection(445-449).

      In reference to the archaic word usage, the stylist difference here could be argued in the translation. As we are not reading true renditions Verne or Wells, words that have fallen out of usage would have been translated, “Cheroot” to cigarette, “Dandy” to John, “governess” to nanny, for a few examples. Without consulting the first editions in their proper language these changes would have been made to a popular book; “The Difference Engine” has the advantage that is was written recently for a specific audience that would protect these usages, avoid modernizing the language and protect against changes to regional usages such as the inclusion of the regional “huckle-buff”(86).

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  7. Danielle Hillje

    William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine uses the Victorian period as the setting for the novel, and it does this in a number of ways. To start, the audience is given a specific date for start of the novel: January 15th, 1855. However, it is one thing to tell the reader that the novel is set in 1855, and another to “show” it. Gibson and Sterling make references to Victorian people, places and behavioral habits.

    Mick Radley exclaims “Jove” (12), which is a feature of earlier Victorian works. For example, characters in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which was written in 1847-1848, typically exclaim “by Jove” (First appears in Chapter 4. If you search the plain text version on Project Gutenberg, there are more examples: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/599). Jove (also known as Zeus) was the head god in the Roman pantheon. The assumption, therefore, is that this expression is the Victorian equivalent for the modern “Oh God”; however, Christians during the period would likely have found in blasphemous to use the Christian god in a (typically) negative expression, hence the use of the “pagan” equivalent.

    Sybil reads the Illustrated London News (21) which was a Victorian newspaper. Our library actual has a subscription to the newspaper: http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/iln/dispBasicSearch.do?prodId=ILN&userGroupName=ucalgary
    (If the link doesn’t work: Search “Illustrated London News” in the Library Search Bar, and it will be under “Journals”)

    Unfortunately, they do not have an edition for January 15, 1855; the closest edition is January 13, 1855. The January 13th edition does not mention Dinosaurs or Charles Darwin, as it does in the January 15th edition in the novel (22). This could mean that the newspaper Sybil reading on January 15th is fictitious (not all Victorian newspapers produced daily news), or it could mean that a copy of that edition did not survive in the archive.

    Gibson and Sterling use 19th century “slang” in their character’s dialogue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:
    “Copper’s nark” (7): first seen used in the 1859, a “Copper’s nark” was a police informer. (OED “nark, n.” 2a)
    “Dollymop” (18): first documented in 1834, a “dollymop” was a “drab” meaning “a slut” or a “prostitute” (OED, “Drab”, 1a, b).
    “Bobtail” (18): likely used in this context to meaning the “common[ers]” or low-class rabble, which was popularly used from 1800 onwards (OED, “bobtail n.”, 5).
    Even the “Rads” (22) that are continually mentioned was a slang term for “Radicals” in the early to mid 1800s (OED “Rad n.1.).

    However, does the use of these historical “facts” blind readers to the changes the authors have made? The historical “Rads” did not have “Government machinery” (7) capable of digging up information of “Sybil Gerard”(7), yet the usage of these historical facts allows readers to believe that such things may have been possible in the Victorian period. Yet, how much does the novel play off modern assumptions of the Victorian period?

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  8. Jason Kadar

    The most striking aspect so far in The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson is the connections to the past and the departures from reality as a result of Charles Babbage’s success. The British Empire is more powerful than in our history as they had more advanced machinery available to control the American Union. Furthermore, steam carriages, airships, and “computers” are present unlike in our past history. This alternate history being tied to our own through historical figures and attire creates an air of truth. And, at times it is difficult to figure what is being drawn from reality and from the alternate history. The blurring of reality with fiction results in a confusing read at times as it took time to learn the new rules and possibilities. Do you think that Sterling and Gibson dropped the reader into this new history instead of explaining the current state of the world in order to confuse the reader? Was their goal to confuse, in order to more easily introduce the reader to the atmosphere of the new world instead of running through the state of the world as a prologue?

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  9. Tiana Charlebois

    The main similarity I’ve noticed between The Difference Engine and our other novels is that men are usually the main characters or narrators of the story. While we have Sibbald Gerard as the main character for the first bit of the book, her actions are highly dictated by Mick Radley which in a sense relates to the older mindset that men were always in charge. The book has many aspects of a Victorian period. The clothes including corsets, crinoline, and bonnets are of the time period whereas for men it was all about suit and top hat which was found to be on characters at many times which coincides with the other books of the “elite” kinds of attire for the wealthy as seen in our other books. The main difference I found for the stories is that this book sometimes questions technology. During the Derby Day, after the false start, a man states “the false start will take the pressure down. Simple matter of specific heat. It means the biggest boiler will surely win” (110). This then has our character Mallory doubting that his bet for the Zephyr will actually be won even thought his companion Goodwin was sure that they could win. This is the complete opposite in comparison to Fogg where he had complete trust in all the types of machines he used to get through his journey even with the upsets as well as with the Time Traveler as he trusted that his machine really did travel through time even with all the doubts that everyone thought. Why do you think Mallory starts to doubt the Zephyr’s chances after the false start, even though in most other steampunk literature we have seen, there is usually trust in the technology to always pull through to the main characters advantage?

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  10. Jian Zhang

    I began the reading into “The Difference Engine” by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson immediately expecting to have the “Difference Engine” defined. Instead, I found a world with seemingly political strife. This is in comparison to “The Time Traveler”, in which we immediately were introduced to the “Time Machine” and corresponding characters in a clear, linear fashion.
    As such, it seems the British Empire is vastly powerful in the time period in comparison to the time period we actually recall from that era. (I.e. “trans-Channel airship, “charging trains”, “steam-gurneys) The character Sybil is searching for a “computer” program; I would say that is quite advanced for that era. Perhaps that expands upon the “Victorian” elements we have come to know so well, elements which in particular commission the industrial & technological revolution to advance Nations.

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  11. Hannah Tennant

    Gibson and Sterlings’ The Difference Engine, has a nitty gritty flavour and style not found in Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days, or Wells’ The Time Machine. Both those novels centre around the English Gentleman, while The Difference Engine gets in the thick of things with the English working class, focusing on a former prostitute, a “clacker”, and an archeologist.
    Gibson and Sterling present a Victorian Era in which everyone has access, and is impacted by technology. It is found on the billboards (14), and under stage floors (24) to be happened upon by anyone. Technology seems to have a life of its own, established in Victorian life. It has its grips on society and is not easily controlled. Older technology lumbers around and must be avoided (87). New technology springs up by surprise, revolutionizes the way things can be done, and yet is still beyond the influence of even those who invent it (112).
    Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days presents technology as a tool, easily controlled and predicted through calculations (249). Fogg travels around the world by the progress of technology but he is largely untouched by it. The world is open to him, but he is not open to it. Fogg remains in control of technology—he knows how it works down to the minute and every possible mishap. He begins the English Gentleman and he remains the English Gentleman, above and in control of technology.
    In The Time Machine as well, new technology is in the hands of the Time Traveller, seemingly understood and available only through him. It is an anomaly, an interesting concept, rather than a series of developments that are changing and shaping society.
    Personally, I prefer the presentation of technology in The Difference Engine. It provides a picture of what the impact of the development of technology may have had on the psyche of the people. It has more flavour, more substance, and in my opinion, a more complete picture of the society presented. It looks deeper into the overall impact accessible technology has on every person, and we are shown a Victorian society that is full of middle class people interacting with new ideas, instead of only the privileged few upper class people in the other novels.

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  12. Jared K

    In the novel “The Difference Engine” we are introduced to a world far away from the one we know today. The world depicted is one that runs on steam and resembles an advanced age of industrialization. The mechanisms and the mode of operation of the machines is never made clear yet we are to assume they are highly advanced, as they can operate in a similar function to modern day computers. Yet for all the grandeur of this setting the first character we are introduced to and the one which will frame the opening ~50 pages of the novel is Sybil Gerard, daughter of the deceased Walter Gerard, a Luddite leader. What do you think the author is attempting to do by building this highly advanced world yet having an opening protagonist be strongly affiliated with the Luddite movement, who were highly against the rise of technological prominence.

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  13. Becca Kopitoski

    After reading the first 114 pages of “The Difference Engine”, I found that I have become more adaptable as a reader to the mysteries around Victorian technologies. Much like “Lord Kelvin’s Machine”, “The Difference Engine” provides readers with a suspenseful unknowing of what the difference machine is, but this story also has secrecy in that it we do not know how this cryptic technology is related to the two main plots of the story. Unlike “Around the World in Eighty Days”, where the technologies were clearly defined (newspaper media, travel technology accommodations), and “The Time Machine”, where we are introduced to what the time machine is and how it works within the first few passages, “The Difference Engine” does give readers such an instant satisfaction.

    I also wanted to point out (with my social work background lens) that I have noticed that these stories sometimes re-write some of history’s more conservative and traditional social views. Even though “The Difference Engine” presents a variety of racist and sexist perspectives throughout the story (e.g: “I wouldn’t hurt a white woman, ‘less I had to” (74)), it also provides a more accepting view of Aboriginal peoples that was uncommon for 1855 (e.g: “I saw no contradiction in the lives of Homer’s heroes and those of my beloved Cherokees” (44)). This also reminded me of how Phileas Fogg married an native Indian woman as a white British gentleman in 1872. I also watched that documentary on Netflix called “Vintage Tomorrows” in which some “steampunks” claim that the purpose of their lifestyle and interests lays within the desire to re-write history and make it more socially liberal. I have never claimed to be a fan of steampunk, but these social views from fans and writers is slowly beginning to change my mind about the genre.

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  14. Thao Tran

    A major difference in the writing style of Gibson and Sterling’s “The Difference Engine” is the amount of emphasis that was placed into world building. “The Time Machine” bye H.G. Wells and “Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne were both written in what was considered the present day, for their time, albeit with a more futuristic technological advancement in “The Time Machine”. It’s assumed the reader does not need an introduction to the present day society, because they are living in it.

    However, because “The Difference Engine” is a modern day book written about an alternative history that’s set in the Victorian era, there is a need to introduce this new world. Since “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Time Machine” were both originally published as serials, I can understand why the characters were introduced as efficiently as they were, with less nuances and mystery to their motivations and thoughts. Given that “The Difference Engine” was published as a single, completed novel rather than serial format, the writers had more freedom to create mysterious characters and slowly reveal their importance to the story. In a way, because “The Difference Engine” is a modern story that’s set in an alternate past, it feels as though it’s wearing a period costume and acting in what it thinks is Victorian.

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  15. Song Dayoung

    After read the first 115 pages of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and compared with the previous novels that we have read, I found the main character, in the first story, of The Difference Engine is a working class person who doesn’t want the technology development. Mr. Fogg was the upper-class man who fully used steam technology as a tool to complete his journey, and Time Traveler also made good use of scientific technology. So it is fascinating that a story focus on people who suffered from those technological development just as Sybil who was found that her real identity by “the difference engine” and working-class people who resisted science and technology.

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  16. Andrea Williamson

    In my reading of the first sections of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, I initially began to question everything I thought I knew about steampunk and the way machines and progression are viewed within this genre. In our first few readings this term, particularly the works of Jules Verne and James P. Blaylock, technology has been seen, in the narrators eyes, in a mostly positive, or at least awe-inspiring light. These narratives seemed to celebrate technology – its wonders, its achievements, its ability to create and transform the world that we have come to know. Verne viewed technology as a way to achieve the impossible, while Blaylock saw technology and science as knowledge, power, and a way to save the world from events that we would otherwise be powerless to. Therefore, my initial interpretation of steampunk was that technology in this genre was to be viewed as a great, transformative asset to society.
    Gibson and Sterling took this interpretation that I intially had and shattered it. I was particularily drawn to the first iteration of the novel and the way that Sybil, her past, and her present expose us to a new way of thinking of technology. The industrial revolution has changed this woman for the worse, along with so many others, including her father and Mick. In this novel, technology, the advancement of the industrial revolution, and particularly the Engines and the people who control them, are seen in a negative light. Technology is used as a tool to control people like Sybil; it takes away her voice, her job, her dignity. However, the novel continues to progress and we as readers begin to understand that the people of this knowledge actually celebrate knowledge and are fascinated by the technology it creates, but they are truly damaged by those who hold the power over it. While technology fascinates people such as Sybil and Mick, they are examples of the fact that when it is at the hands of the wrong people, it can be detrimental.
    Through this realization I began to compare The Difference Engine to Lord Kelvin’s Machine. Both of these novels express the idea that knowledge and technology are very powerful forces, and they can be used to progress society and do great things. However, both novels express the detrimental impact that this knowledge can have on society when it is placed in the wrong hands. So perhaps, I think, there is a theme within the genre of steampunk that suggests that technology is a great and wonderful mechanism, but when it is combined with humans, and particularly the wrong humans, it can have vast and negative impacts. What did you all think? Do you agree with this sentiment or did you interpret something else?

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  17. David Poeung

    In the first 115 pages of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the story is told from the perspective of two characters in an alternate timeline Victorian England, a prostitute named Sybil Gerard, and a paleontologist named Edward Mallory. I found that the use of these two characters provided two very different looks into Victorian culture thanks to their differing social status. Sybil provides a look at the lower class, more underground perspective of society as it struggles to keep up with the advances of the industrial and engine revolution. While Mallory provides a look into the the perspective of the Victorian scientific community which is spear-heading the technological advancements. This is particularly evident in the way they speak. While the novel is written entirely in Victorian era vernacular and uses slang appropriate to that era, such as “dollymop”, the way the characters seem to speak differs greatly. Sybil’s speech is much more unrefined whereas Mallory speaks in a more formal manner. Mallory’s part of the story so far also emphasizes again the importance of betting in Victorian society, just as Around the World in Eighty Days did. Additionally, while Mallory seems to provide a similar type of perspective of Victorian England as Fogg and The Time Traveller, that of a proper gentleman who views Victorian England as close to perfection, Sybil’s is wholly different. Sybil’s perspective of the Victorian era is noticeably more pessimistic and tackles many of its more unpleasant aspects such as prostitution, the status of women and the idea of a lady vs a whore, the divide between the classes, etc. Sybil’s view of Victorian England seemingly challenges the idealized views that Verne and Wells presented in their stories.

    Given this contrasting perspective, why do you think the authors began the story with a flash-forward of an elderly Sybil before spending the next 80 pages detailing the experiences of a younger Sybil? Does the fact that Sybil’s story explores the darker sides of society make The Difference Engine more ‘realistic’ than the idealized societies in Verne’s and Wells’ stories despite the fact that those were written in that time period and this book was not? Does this also make the novel more ‘punk’ than the others? And lastly, why does the novel suddenly shift from a tone of political intrigue to the excitement of a race day alongside its switch in protagonists?

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  18. Oliver Kingsley

    Reading through Gibson and Sterling’s novel, The Difference Engine (1985), I have begun to pick up on some common traits from the novels that we have read. The first and most striking thing to reoccur in these stories is the constant obsession to talk about the materials that make up an object or machine. Sterling and Gibson really delve into this concept, writing such lines of dialogue as “Put on your skirt, then, and your brass heeled dolly boots” (9). It is not essential to the story to include the word ‘brass’, but it rather is used to evoke the story’s setting. Like most steampunk, I think that the reasoning behind their choice is to solidify the type of resources being used in this world. Sure, these stories feature technologies that are much more advanced for the time in which they are set. They can however use the description of an object’s components to justify how if someone from the future were to go back to this time, there is a possibility that advanced technology could be created with the current materials and methods of construction of that period.

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  19. Kelsey MacQueen

    In the first 115 pages of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the reader is introduced to a world with many familiar elements mixed with new inventions, many of which do not belong in the Victorian setting. To establish the time period, the authors include Victorian elements in the setting, the characters’ attitudes, and the outfits. Elements like a “portmanteau” (61), and a “four-wheeled velocipede” (58) would not be common outside of a Victorian setting. The character, Sybil Gerard, details certain elements in her Victorian wardrobe, including a “mantelet” (58), “crinoline” (64), and “bonnet” (60). Furthermore, gender roles are frequently highlighted and illustrate Victorian values. These include the “public house […] admitting no women” (59), the issue that only whores would “walk in boldly from the midnight streets, an unescorted woman” (64), and that the “smoking room is not for ladies” (65). Gender roles were also common in the other novels, “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Time Machine” where the women played a subordinate role. How can appearance effect opportunity? What does the depiction of a character’s appearance suggest about their class and how might this give us a clue about their attitudes in a technological world.
    “The Difference Engine” also shares some similarities regarding the global network. Both “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Difference Engine” illustrate a growing global network as a result of transport technologies, like railways, and newspapers. Both reference the influence of newspapers in public perception for General Huston’s “secret” (47) and Phileas Fogg’s trip.
    While there are many similarities, the acceleration of technological advancement in “The Difference Engine” is in stark contrast to the realism of “Around the World in 80 Days” and the technology-deprived future of “The Time Machine”. How might precise, scientific characters like Phileas Fogg and The Time Traveller fare in the advanced world established by “The Difference Engine”.

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  20. A.Crane

    Due to English being my third language, I always tackle literature books with the knowledge of some reviews and summaries that don’t spoil the plot, to be more aware of which characters to pay attention to, and to become a bit more accustomed to the setting of the tale. The review I have read talked a lot about Charles Babbage, an engineer who, in this alternative history version of England, has succeeded at creating the analytical engine, which resulted in the age of technology arriving much earlier than it happened in our days. Regardless of my language disadvantage, I love detailed description of settings in books – and “The Difference Engine” delivered. I prefer novels that give lengthy descriptions of the world they’re set in, not only because it gives me a better understanding of the story as a whole, but especially in the case of alternate history, I really love reading about how “it could have been” in great detail. I wrote my essay for this class on one of the opening paragraphs of this novel, and in it I talked about the fact that the way the old lady, Sybil, was introduced to us seemed like she was in the middle – between an abandoned age of the “natural” garden, and the looming age of technology, looking up at the airplanes. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was right, in a way, as I kept reading and found out that Sybil Gerard is a daughter of a Luddite agitator. Going back to my original statement, however, I find “The Difference Engine” the most difficult read so far out of all the books we have covered. The writing gets a little dull sometimes, and has a lot of complex historical matter, which can sometimes be confusing. The story began rather interesting, and then after about 40 pages, it completely jumped onto new characters and new ideas, so at times it is rather confusing to read. Perhaps the reason for that is because the novel has two authors. I am hoping the book will make a bit more sense in the end, with the jumps in the storytelling, but I can definitely say, that even if it doesn’t, it was worth the read just for the images that the authors gave me about how different this alternate universe setting is compared to what we know of those times in our world.

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