WEEK 7: Gibson and Sterling’s “The Difference Engine” (II)

This is an open thread on William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1985). You do not need to have finished the novel to participate in this thread, but the entire novel is now fair game for discussion. This thread will remain open until 9pm on Monday, 24 October.


26 thoughts on “WEEK 7: Gibson and Sterling’s “The Difference Engine” (II)

  1. Today in class, I suggested that Gibson and Sterling use Charles Babbage’s development of a working “analytical engine” as their novel’s major point of difference with established history (in which the historical Babbage designed but was unable to complete a prototype of a such an engine). In this novel, we noted, the realization of this counterfactual historical possibility makes possible an alternate system of Victorian social norms, economies of value, and power relations — both personal and political.

    However, as many of you noted on the blog last week, the novel does not exactly go out of its way to bring us, its modern-day readers, up to speed, or to describe in detail what has changed and why. For this week’s responses, then, let’s take on the role of Wells’s “convenient cicerone,” but for The Difference Engine: let’s try, in other words, to map the “alternate system” of Victorian norms that follows upon Babbage’s invention of an analytical engine.

    In your response, please discuss one of the “consequences” of this central point of difference. What new historical possibilities does Babbage’s computing machine open up? How do these new circumstances appear to have shaped a new world — its social structure, its economy, or its politics? You may wish to discuss a small, apparently insignificant “consequence” in your response, or to try instead to tackle more global, sweeping changes. If you want to expand on a point you made last week in light of having read more of the novel, please feel free to do so.


    1. Lorenzo Marcil

      A potential consequence to the introduction of computing technology in the Victorian era is the politics surrounding privacy of information and identity security. This issue is brought up in passing very early on, as Mick Radley spies on Sybil by “[using] the government’s machines for [his] own sweet purposes.” (Gibson and Sterling 7). Over the ensuing act, it becomes clear that Mick does not hold any real power in the government, as he is essentially a dispensable secretary for a touring American with little political influence. It begs the question how this man would have access to sensitive information in the first place.

      In the third act, this notion of privacy comes up again with the research proposal of Laurence Oliphant. On the topic of Oliphant’s novel social and epidemiological study, Wakefield mentions “We naturally keep a brotherly eye on the telegram-traffic, credit-records, and such.” (Gibson and Sterling 152). Edward Mallory described the matter “as a Utopian fancy” (Gibson and Sterling 152), but perhaps this form of monitoring of personal information and seemingly free access to it is more dystopian.

      The consequence I am alluding to is that the ethical constrictions surrounding the use of vast quantities of personal information that have not yet been developed in this world. In our society there were decades of ethical reviews and court cases that developed public research practices that preceded analytical public records. By the time they became available there were systems of regulation already in place.

      In an alternative view of history it almost seems that these records are free to anyone (or at least with minimal red-tape), which is perhaps why an insignificant person like Dandy Mick would have little trouble running a personal background check. If vast quantities of public information are of free use, there is a tremendous potential for someone to easily abuse this system for extortion or other illegal uses. I hope that the book will explore this possibility further.

      For my argument, I feel that I should acknowledge that abuse of personal information does happen in our own society (identity theft), but I am focusing on the ease of potential abuse in the world of “The Difference Engine” (corporations or hackers would not be the only ones with access to personal data).

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    2. Jason Kadar

      One of the interesting results of Babbage’s success is the societal shift in power. During the Mallory portion of the novel the shift in power is displayed. When Mallory could not find a new emblem on a steam-chariot in his guide he remarked “[p]ity, but it meant little, when new Lords were ennobled weekly” (46). Later Huxley suspects that his possible upcoming lordship is the result of “is some ploy of Babbage and his elite cronies, a last attempt to pack the Lords with scientific savants while Byron still holds sway.” (73). In The Difference Engine it appears that the aristocracy and dynasty family structures of our Victorian history is being overtaken by the new scientists and inventors. Essentially replacing old family money with new. Due to this shift, it seems that innovation and education are highly valued in this alternate history instead of old money such as in our history.

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    3. Kelsey Jacobi

      The Colt & Maxwell Typing Engine that Benjamin Disraeli purchases shows a consequence of Babbage’s computing machine. Disraeli is having issues with this Typing Engine, though he was told “it would make life easier” (218). When Edward Mallory fixes it for him, as “Disraeli had failed to engage the sprockets properly” (218), Mallory tells him all the seeming advantages of it. Disraeli disagrees with these advantages, as he “can scribble faster” than the machine, and “in a better hand, by far” (219). Though the machine allows revision, Disraeli emphasises that “[p]rofessionals never revise” (219). Though Disraeli complains about the machine, he says “it can’t be helped” as the “publishers will force the innovation” on his industry (220). Though Disraeli feels the typing machine does not really make his life any easier as promised, he feels he has to get used to it to stay ahead. Babbage’s technological advancement with his machine leads to further advancing technology in other industries, and pushes these industries to advance technologically in order to stay ahead. Thus, Babbage’s machine speeds up the process of technological advancement whether others like it or not. Disraeli, in his complaints of the machine, implies it will be hard to write his “elegant and long-winded” passages for Mallory’s book with this typing machine, such as his passage on how “in those moments of vast disturbance, as in the strife of Nature itself, some new principle of order, or some new impulse of conduct, develops itself, and controls, and regulates” (219). Disraeli’s words connect to how Babbage’s machine began a “new principle of order” that controls his Victorian society, pushing people to adopt technologies to stay ahead, even if they feel, as Disraeli does in this moment, that new technologies impede rather than help them personally. This, along with the whole novel, reinforces the showcasing of technology’s power, that it can create a whole new arrangement of society quickly and thoroughly.

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    4. Building off what Jane was saying, in reading the novel I felt as though the advancement of the technology in this alternate history created these new separations of class distinctions. Those with intellectual power and capabilities, particularly scientists as well as industrial figures, are singled out and treated with respect, as Jane said, “like celebrities”. I thought this change in social views of science and technology ultimately leads to a consequential change in the educational patterns within the alternate history timeline. The novel places an importance on studying sciences such as engineering versus studying history or art, since the sciences are deemed more practical and useful. Furthermore, since social hierarchy is determined by knowledge and the ability to fluently understand technology, classical studies are less important.

      I have not finished the book yet so I look forward to seeing how these educational views play out in the rest of the novel.

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    5. Zach Morrison

      Perhaps one of the defining technological advancements of our contemporary digital age is the invention of computer technologies which place us in direct contact with vast networks of information at our immediate command. The ability to access information instantly through the internet, or more specifically, the ability to access information about individuals through social media platforms and other digital resources, did not exist in a pre-computer age nineteenth century.
      Babbage’s engine, however, makes possible the convenient storage and cataloging of personal information, ushering in a new era of surveillance by giving government officials instant access to an individual’s criminal background, personal history and identity. After explaining to Sybil that he had run her “number” through a “government engine,” Radley remarks, “So I know all about you girl. Know who you are . . .” (Gibson and Sterling 6). Similar to how in our modern day reality western governments increasingly surveil their populations through means of digital technology, so too does the Victorian age government in The Difference Engine use computers to cache useful information about the lives of individual citizens. The social implications of this advancement are immense, as it is the first time in history where a person’s entire past can be exposed at the punch of a card, and is therefore an age where it is impossible to fully conceal one’s own identity. Like Sybil, everyone becomes reducible to their past experiences, and identities are constructed through data obtained from vast informational networks.

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  2. Danielle Hillje

    The difference engine brings in the information age much sooner than the 20th century. “Machines [are], whirring somewhere, spinning out history” (6), and for a woman like Sybil Gerard, who wishes to disappear from her father’s dangerous political past, such information can be dangerous, but “The Government Engines have long memories” (7). According to The Difference Engine’s alternative history, the “Government’s Engines” function, or at least can function, like a modern hard-drive that stores or compiles information about individuals. That is how Mick Radley learned that Sybil was in fact the daughter of the political revolutionary Walter Gerard. Presumably, this information about Sybil’s lineage is dangerous for her, as she is quite concerned that Mick has learned about her past, and who else he may have told (8). He can use this knowledge to “pull[…] her strings” (8), and bribes her into doing as he bids by offering her a trip to Paris. She accepts, presumably, because “The Government’s Engines”(7) do not reach that far.

    Information has always been powerful in society; however, in the world of The Difference Engine, how information is collected and stored has changed, and the limits to what a person can know have expanded (if – like Mick – one has access to these “Government machines”). The novel does not specify how the machines collected this information: was it volunteered? Are their databases that they “tap into”? Or is the computer omniscient as in Wells’ 1984 “Big Brother”? Either way, information what you know or can learn about someone appears to be a dangerous new development in spying technology. As Mick puts it, “It’s what a cove knows that counts, ain’t it Sybil? More than land or money, more than birth. Information” (11).

    Information has already played a key role in the narrative’s plot, namely making Sybil agree to become Mick’s apprentice “adventuress”. But will “the government” continue to spy on Sybil or our other protagonists? What role might knowing or not knowing information play in the plot for the remainder of the novel?

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  3. Ashley Dhillon

    The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling has information going around from the beginning of the novel. Information is a powerful thing within society as a whole in most cases especially to the societies where it plays an important role, this new technology of the analytical engine that Charles Babbage has created could change lives on a global level, as it can change the way in which people will live their lives. The social structure would change in the way that who gets access to this technology first and who can afford it, and from there it would affect the world as something economically and politically. In terms of the difference engine when it’s said “The government’s engines have long memories.” (7) it can cause the consequence of having this type of information based on individuals like Sybil who is trying to get away from something but this information kept takes away from that point. Based on this information you can receive about people like Sybil “the daughter of Walter Gerard was a fancy prize, for a man like Mick.” (8) it shows the individuals are seen as higher and more valuable once they are realized to be an important figure in the world, the releasing of information can even potentially put Sybil in danger because once people know who she is then there always the chance of her being used in ways of getting information. How does this information about knowing about Sybil take either a good or bad role in the novel moving forward? How might knowing this information as well shape the world in different social, economic or political ways?

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  4. Kelsey MacQueen

    One of the most notable differences between the timeline in “The Difference Engine” and reality is the appearance of the dark ‘fog’ across London. Mallory first notices a “potent stench […] forced from the hot bowels of London by the charging trains below” (131). Later, “the London sky was a canopy of yellow haze. […] the uprising filth of the city’s smokestacks” (205), and Fraser recalls similar weather when “the coal-fogs were bad” (206), thus the weather is attributed to some form of pollution. The fog in the novel is very similar to The Great Smog of 1952 in the real timeline, which killed an estimated 12,000 people. The Great Smog was a result of coal-burning to heat homes. By moving this event to 1855, when the events of the novel take place, the authors suggest that the creation of a computing system earlier in history would have coincided with greater pollution. The creation of the Engines in the 19th century could have led to increased manufacturing and transportation, resulting in more pollution since a cleaner alternative to coal, like natural gas, was not extensively utilized until the 20th century.

    The increased pollution has hazardous effects on wildlife as “the untoward sight seemed to panic the London starlings” (209) and Mallory observes some “wheezing sheep” (227). On page 211, Mallory “stepped carefully over the small feathered corpse if a starling, lying quite dead in the graveled path”, what might this symbolize?

    The pollution also effect social structures. On his way to the Palace of Paleontology, Mallory observes chaos and destruction in London, “eager leaders in mischief […] seemed to have leapt whole from the coagulated Stink of London” (276). The fog seems to act like a catalyst for societal disorder with “the bonds of society broken” (277). Amidst the anarchy, Mallory notes that “most of them looked respectable enough by their dress; they were merely reckless now, stripped by Chaos to a moral vacuity […] They had become puppets of base impulse. […] Goodmen of civilized London had surrendered themselves to primitive madness” but most interestingly, “they enjoyed it. […] a wicked freedom more perfect and desirable than any they had ever known” (277). What does this say about the human condition? Do people secretly wish to be uncivilized? Are Gibson and Sterling suggesting that technology is driving us toward anarchy or that it is a shackle holding back human desires? Compare page 277 with page 294, why have so many from the working-class retained a sense of civility while the more respectable-looking group has succumbed to chaos?

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  5. Jane Wishart

    A very prevalent consequence of the implementation of Babbage’s computing device within the context of Gibson and Sterling’s “The Difference Engine”, is the sheer power Britain obtains through its technological achievements. Class systems function differently in this piece of speculative fiction. Edward Mallory for instance is a humble man from Sussex, who merely becomes of high standing through the knowledge he gained from a Cambridge scholarship earned by working on the Lewes Museum. Malloy’s education was grand but “…likely no more than [he] had deserved.” (Gibson and Sterling, 242). As science rules everything in this hypothetical society, scientists are regarded as celebrities. Mallory, a member of the Royal Society, is stricken by “‘the price of fame’” (Gibson and Sterling, 169), while he receives more and more fan mail as a result of his discovery of the Leviathan.
    Although there are still heavy classist connotations between the savants and the lower classes, it is not quite so prevalent as our reality. “Savants”, or “learned men” are those of upper class, “I never saw any savant talk straight to a sand-hog…” (208) Gibson and Sterling make the presence of distinction between classes very clear. Under the power of the Radical party “secretaries, valets, butlers, chambermaids, the whole squalid business of service.” (Gibson and Sterling, 169), had been heavily reformed into a system that was based on ability rather than means. Because of Britain’s developments in science, and consequently their developments in trade, and in technology, classes are reformed as well.
    Science is seen as the leading cause of fame within the novel. Yet, these “savants” are deserving of their fame since it is based on their merit of their scientific achievements. Gibson and Sterling have created a world where class distinctions are based solely on how people have influenced and bettered the progressions of British innovation, or in better terms: “Knowledge is power” Gibson and Sterling, .

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  6. Tiana Charlebois

    Having the machine function earlier in the time scale could have major implications on the social structure in terms of their security. This changes social structure as people want to keep their identity, and any secrets that come with that, a secret. This machine allowed for their information to be easily found and distributed. Before this machine, it would have been difficult to find secrets of an identity if it was changed. This was seen at the start when Mick Radley found out that Sybil was the daughter of Walter Gerard (not Sybil Jones) (6-7). This worked in her favor as she got offered a trip to Paris for her expertise (9) but that negates the fact that her information was found using the machine.
    In the next example, it exemplifies that the machine assigned a citizen-number to a person (example p.70 for Sybil sending a letter to Charles Egremont). This reduces a person to a number making the world more mechanical and void of a real identity. As Wakefield pointed out, the system can erase people if someone has control over it making it so they cease to exist (“Not a check-stub, not a mortgage in a City bank, nothing whatever.” 433). This example brings light to a larger consequence for future generations. As it states later in the book, that in the year 1991, “[…] in the hot unhuman dark, data melts and mingles, churned by gear-work to a skeletal bubbling pumice, dipped in a dreaming wax that forms a simulated flesh […]. It is not London- but mirrored plazas […]” (485-6) making the world seem artificial and void of individuals, it is simply just a land made of code.

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  7. Jared K

    In William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel “The Difference Engine” a world in which individualism is greatly reduced is built. the individuals in this novel are reduced to a set of numbers, acting as cogs in a grand machine. These numbers can be run through government machines at any time, retrieving files outlining an individuals private life. The machines supposedly have access to “…everyone in Britain in our records. Everyone who’s ever applied for work, or paid taxes, or been arrested”. for what purpose does Gibson and Sterling introduce this heavily monitored governmental system in their technologically advanced era. Are they suggesting that as technology evolves government will benefit most to the determent of an individuals privacy? Or are they perhaps suggesting that it is in a governments nature to attempt to control and monitor its population?

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    1. Kate Anderson

      In response to Jared’s comment, I would hazard to say that Gibson and Sterling are mostly making a comment on government nature, and its tendency to control the populace they hold power over. However, the all the destruction and antagonism comes from a group of anarchists, so I’m not a hundred percent sure that their stance is a negative one. I can see it from both sides. On one hand, the government has control of information that makes these criminals easier to find, allowing Mallory to progress in his investigation much faster than he would have on his own. Life in the city also seems to move pretty smoothly, so it stands to reason that the government is doing a passable job of keeping society running. On the other hand, if an anarchist group can cause that amount of destruction in a city in that short of a time, is the government’s strategy that effective? Besides, one could argue that the population isn’t that happy if an anarchist group is thriving. Did anyone else have any thoughts about this? Is the stance towards government control a positive one or a negative one?

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      1. My Thanh Huynh

        I agree that it is the “government nature”, to control the populace and hold power of it. However, the question here for me is, is holding the power over the populace so bad? Does this power not come with order? Gibson and Sterling highlights very often the control that the government has over the people. Although most of the destruction did come from the anarchist’s, the government ultimately plays a role in the actions of the people especially when members of the political parties are corrupt, “-with money, from God only knows what source-fomenting riot and rebellion during a public emergency- and in control of an Engine-driven press!”. It comes with the old saying that there must be an action for there to be a reaction. Yes, the government can only do so much but, the government also has the power to meet the needs of the people. That being said, I do not believe the government is doing a great job at controlling the destruction of the city. In my opinion, I find that the government is quite passive aggressive about the whole ordeal. While reading this novel, I did sense a lack of government assistance unless it had to do with something that would essentially benefit them. I believe that in an ideal world, we the people need a government or else there would be chaos. In this case I do not believe that the stance on the government within the novel is positive nor negative.

        What I took from this last portion of the reading here was how far we have come with privacy. Speaking of control, I thought it was ironic how the government is supposed to have so much “control” but had very little control of the Machine as private information was easily accessible. “Sybil Jones” was hiding under an alias name as she was the daughter of Walter Gerard, “He ran it through a government Engine for me, and printed up your Bow Street file” …”So I know all about you, girl. Know who you are…” (p.6) Mick accessed that information very easily. Thus, the machine lacked protection as it exposed the government and people’s privacy. I personally believe that the difference engine is highlighted to give critiques of Babbage and this novel to further analyze how far society has come as it’s progresses alongside the machine.

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      2. Greg Bevington

        The section where Mallory is helped by the clerk Tobias has me thinking somewhat along the lines of this thread. I found it a good picture of what daily life might be like for the people in the England of this book, and so perhaps some clues as to what that anarchist group is revolting against. Tobias, with his talent for English and addition is one of many with those talents stuck in a dead end job as a machine clerk (“Everyone hates it, who has a spark of sense… Two years of this work, maybe three” 158). And this is working for Her Majesty’s Government! Tobias’ job sounds more to me like Orwell’s brutal toil in “Down and Out in Paris and London” than a relatively cushy position working for the CRA in our time. We know from the same page that a lot of older labor jobs are being replaced by machinery, and so we can suppose that the majority of people in this society are working mind-numbing jobs like Tobias. Although materially, The Difference Engine’s English society may be said to be running smoothly, or even thriving, the working class, now more button pressers than laborers, probably still have a feeling of estrangement from the jobs they spend most of their waking hours at.

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  8. Allow me to begin this response with a question of my own: are you familiar with the technological hypothesis of the Singularity?

    The technological singularity – often shortened to “the singularity” – is an idea that there will come a point when an artificially intelligent machine will commence a ceaseless cycle of self-reflection and self-improvement, following an exponential growth in superiority and advancement at a constantly increasing rate.

    This hypothetical process would necessarily require a starting point, and in this alternate version of history the early invention of the titular difference engine would be that starting point. That means that, if we were to look backwards down both of these timelines from their own respective versions of the year 2016, then the computers of The Difference Engine will have had roughly 100 years more advancement than our own. I bet the people in that alternate reality actually have hoverboards and flying cars, all thanks to the aid of their comparatively advanced computers.

    However, something has stuck with me from the beginning of the novel. Something that refuses to abandon my thoughts. First of all, the style of the narration changes between two distinctive styles. While the bulk of the text is written in a more traditional and engaging narrative form in past tense, each chapter begins and ends with a brief shift into a raw analytical summation of immediate events in present tense. We jump back and forth between Shakespeare and an almost mechanical detachment. It’s almost as if these parts are being read by an engine designed specifically to analyze them. An analytical engine, if you will. Do you see where I’m going with this yet?

    Furthermore, I find it interesting that The Difference Engine is not divided into chapters, but “iterations”. In our last lecture, we briefly discussed this as referring to the various iterations of a solution a computer will calculate to solve a given problem. However, since we’re talking about the Singularity we can apply a slightly more specific term. You see, in the context of the Singularity, a machine’s constant cycle of self-improvement can be seen as said machine attempting to solve the problem of its own inferiority. The solution is, obviously, to either make a better machine or to improve itself into a better one. Either way, the growth of the Singularity occurs as a machine goes through ever more complex iterations of itself, with each iteration going on to make improvements its predecessors weren’t capable of foreseeing. So then, with this thought in my head it is curious that the novel refers to its chapters as “iterations”. This, combined with the narrator’s occasional “faults” and regressions into the tone of an analytical machine, plant theories in my mind. In this world, the computer was invented early. Why shouldn’t the Singularity experience a similar acceleration?

    I am utterly convinced that some kind of hint in this regard is being dropped – nay, rained – into our laps. This time period is a century ahead of ours relatively speaking. And while current events in the novel’s story take place in the 1850s, time moves ever onward. The world of The Difference Engine has already begun its journey to the inevitable Singularity. Who’s to say that the novel isn’t going to address this thought? Who’s to say it hasn’t already?

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  9. Firstly, apologies for my referencing; The version of the book that I have is not the course specified one and as such page numbers are different.

    The invention of “computers” some decades before their invention in our reality, has far reaching consequences in Gibson’s and Sterling’s “The Difference Engine”. A very distinct consequence is the technological acceleration applied to processing data, specifically finding information and tracking people.

    Early in the book, It is a fairly easy thing for Mick to find out all about Sybil’s past because of his access to engines. What once would have taken possibly months to find out is seen to happen in a few days. This change is also present in the government, with them being able to track data about their citizens and communicate it much more easily. This gives the governments unprecedented power over their citizens, like Sybil who is described as trapped because “…the cops and bosses have [her] number…” (13) and know she is “fallen women”(12).

    It is seen that governments rapidly spying on their subjects is entirely possible, given enough power when Mallory and Wakefield discuss Oliphant’s “…visionary schemes for our Engines” (71). This is a precursor to our own world where it is expected that people are watching our every transaction. What is fascinating is that this is not described as a bleak future, but rather an “…Utopian Fancy” (71). This seems very at odds with commonly held beliefs about rights to privacy and other such objections to government spying. This government control then seems to be a good thing to the world of “The Difference Engine”.

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  10. A.Crane

    “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling has a lot of political discussions and themes, as well as details about the age of technology in the 1800’s. However, one common implication in this novel that really caught my eye is the representation of women. It seems that throughout the book, there is a strong dichotomy with the way women are treated – either as promiscuous and unworthy of respect, or, lady-like and highly respected. There didn’t seem to be a female character who was sort of in-between the two stereotypes for women, one negative and one positive, taking the best of both worlds. In the setting of the novel, women are said to be less attractive and feminine the more they focus on learning about the technology of their highly advancing age, which is both strange and not surprising, considering that for ages humanity seemed to have difficulty imagining women possessing both beauty and intellect. Ada Lovelace is one character who gracefully embraces the two sides of the coin, but not in a benevolent manner, as the novel portrays her intellect admired by other men, but her femininity hated by other fellow women, perpetuating a very old and ingrained standard that pins women against each other in competition for femininity and for approval of men.
    In class, we talked about the “crowbar” – a place in the story where there is a major historical difference from what happened in our universe. I think the representation of women in the novel is the opposite of that crowbar. With the early advancement of technology at high speed, the English society became highly educated and powerful, which would of course give rise to women wanting to be educated in the field of technology, as was said in the book. However, this is where the humanity of authors stands out – instead of making the universe of “The Difference Engine” highly advanced in gender equality, despite its highly advanced modern technological age, they instead let the ingrained stereotypes of our society influence their universe, creating stereotypes that seem very out of place in such a society.

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    1. Rebecca Scott

      Considering that the achievements of Lady Ada Byron (Lovelace in our world) form the catalyst for many of the events in the novel (her box of cards being passed around to various people), I find it especially fascinating how her personage is simultaneously elevated to being called “Queen of Engines”, but also degraded and treated condescendingly by people who dismiss her female intellect and want to take advantage of her expertise for their own ends.

      What I find fascinating is the vignette labeled “Modus” where Ada is giving a lecture on the greater implications of mathematics from the failure of the Napoleon Engine; in which she characterized the Modus Program that sabotaged the Engine as a technique of “self-referentiality [that] will someday form the bedrock of a genuinely transcendent meta-system of calculatory mathematics.” (Gibson & Sterling, 477-478). Not only was she able to theorize the existence of a sentient Engine (proven in the last paragraph), but she also directly pointed out the technique of “self-referentiality” that pervades the entire book; once the narrator is revealed to be an A.I., the reasoning for the fragmented storytelling and abrupt character shifts become apparent as the piecing together of a narrative of its own history in its first moments of sentience.

      For this monumental insight, Ada is met with “thin and scattered” (479) applause; her words are not taken seriously as anything more than the frail conjectures of a once-brilliant woman who was praised for her contributions to science only when they directly aided the British Empire in acquiring greater expansion and control. It is only Sybil, the other pivotal woman in the text, who earnestly supports her now. Indeed, Sybil is indirectly responsible for Ada’s insights; by giving Ada’s punch-cards to the man who sabotaged the Napoleon Engine, Sybil ensured that Ada could see the results of her formula in action to theorize what might come of it in the future. In the end, both of these women are vital players in the history of technology – and both of them fade into relative social obscurity; Sybil with a new identity in France, and Ada traveling the world to lecture for mediocre praise as an alternative to her scandalous gambling habits.


  11. Hannah Tennant

    I’ve been interested to read about people’s opinions of the changes in government and access to information that might have been changed by the introduction of the Difference Engine, in the novel. The Difference Engine suggests a slightly scary and intrusive picture of a government with access to multitudes of personal information and little guidelines to control that use. However, I’ve been thinking about what access to information, and perhaps the ability to change it–like Mick suggests he can do for Sybil–might affect Globalization.
    I think a world where people can travel freely, under new names and across countries without much hinderance would be very interesting. As other’s have mentioned, in the world of The Difference Engine, it seem that the government has a long and in depth hold on people’s information-but they are not the only ones with such access. The same is technically true today-but things like passports and border security make travelling as someone other than yourself more difficult.
    If people were able to smoothly move from one country to another, from one name or personality to another, either to escape the past or just for adventure I think that would have sped up the need for a more Globalized government and regulations and require countries to work together if they wanted to keep track of people. In the novel, it seems like Britain is still very much moving forward with the idea of Empire and may not want to work with other countries, which could lead to people being able to slip from one place to another under the radar of separate government systems.
    I think this would lead to people have more access to different ideas and cultures. To different ways of doing things, and different options of how they live their lives. This may make them more critical of their own governments if they are able to see first hand how others operate.
    It may also make the demand for goods from other places increase rapidly-impacting trade and the economy.
    I think the government of Britain in the Difference Engine would struggle to maintain its hold on its people, as well as other parts of the world in light of technology that allows for people to travel and take up new lives all over the globe.

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  12. While its true that The Difference Engine lacks a “cicerone”, the reader is not completely left without any understanding of the world in which the text is based on. The authors of the text are not afraid to use terminology that we do not encounter in our own contemporary lives, such as daguerreotype or kinescope. Historical personages, like Sybil’s chance encounter with John Keats may go unseen if we don’t know the major historical figures from the time. These terms and individuals are not fictional, but rather we have become so removed from our own history (tracing the history of contemporary Canada back to its English roots) that we do not recognize their historical value.
    That being said, while the technology and certain individuals in the text are historical, the authors have “altered the timeline”, so to speak. With technology developing much earlier in this fictional world, the historical figures positions in history are extrapolated into this new timeline. This causes some interesting new events to spring up. Most of the technology encountered is not “new” but rather just presented in a way that makes it seem odd to us. Using a kino during Sam Houston’s speech may seem interesting, but we just need to mentally remind ourselves that they’re describing a projector. The same is true for Mallory’s comment about “silent, steamless trains” that Babbage has created. They seem odd, but it’s no different than any electric powered subway train or tramcar. The technology is familiar to us, but once again, it is merely explained in a different way than what we are used to perceiving.
    We’re not given a cicerone in The Difference Engine, but we don’t need one. Sterling and Gibson have merely transposed the technologies of today into an earlier point in history, we just need to remove our biases about technology and we can see exactly where they’ve imported this technology. To understand the historical persons in the story, we just need to be willing to once again become students of the history of our own society. We don’t need a guide, we are already our own.

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  13. Katie G

    Using “What Then, Is Steampunk?” as a guide for comparison, the article we read at the start of the semester mentions that steampunk “rejects the myopic, nostalgia-drenched politics so common among “alternative” cultures” (5). It continues on to say that they, the writers of the article, “find solidarity and inspiration… in whip-wielding women that yield to none” (5). But despite this statement, I noticed a trend in the texts we read afterwards: they all followed the adventures of male characters. Or if there were female characters, their role was of the love interest for the main male leads. (Ie. Weena from The Time Machine, Aouda from Around the World the World in Eighty Days.) My first impression of The Difference Engine was excitement at the prospect of finally having a female lead character, who from her description at the back of the back and her introduction, made me believe she would fulfill the more feminist character I had been promised. The “whip-wielding” woman who yielded “to none.” But throughout the book, I found some sexist dialogue and lines that made me question my initial assumption. On page 217 of The Difference Engine is the line: ‘ “Every woman needs a man to hold her reins,” Fraser said. “It’s God’s plan for the relations of men and women.” ’ A line that is the complete opposite of “What Then, Is Steampunk?” insisted steampunk is.
    So I wanted to open this discussion up to my classmates. Do you think The Difference Engine has a sexist portrayal of women? Or a feminist one? And is “What Then, Is Steampunk?” correct in the statement that steampunk, as a genre, is one that is supposed to reject Victorian politics? Or is the genre supposed to be true to the classic Victorian times, including their political stance?

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  14. Sergey Pismarkin

    “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling explores the implications of Lord Babbage’s successful creation of his analytical engine and owe see this in the book in various ways, one of which being politically where this invention sparked a technological revolution amongst the people and in the process over turned the political structure of the Britain that we know today. This innovation had also led to the evolution of parts of London that had previously been associated with those unbecoming of everyday life ,places like Whitechapel, which is said to be slowly being turned into the average urban community with it’s share of high middle and lower class individuals all coinciding together. The creation of the Analytical Engine then had essentially opened to the Victorian people what we know as the technological era and this leads them to discoveries and ways of politicking that would have been unheard of for the Victorian era of our time.
    It could therefore be assumed that massive enlightenment is to follow for the Britain shown in this book, adding also the effects this has on neighbouring countries such as France and the entire political atmosphere as a whole, fully being controlled by the advent of this machine and its possibilities with each new version and rendition of the machine.

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  15. One of the key consequences of the counterfactual history presented in The Difference Engine would be the changing in the operation of government, due to the displacement of political power and the progression of analytical engine technology. In the novel’s world, the successful completion of Babbage’s difference engine allowed him to succeed in the general election years prior, rather than the Duke of Wellington. This allowed for the Industrial Radical Party to come to power. Knowledge and intelligence were now given greater credence than bloodlines in British politics, and Charles Darwin, with his theory of evolution, was revered rather than vilified. The nation became more powerful and efficient due in a large part to the analytical engines, those at the Central Statistics bureau, for example, allowing for information to be easily and quickly acquired, as shown when Mallory quickly attains Florence Bartlett’s file. By recognising Bartlett by appearance, Mallory was able to learn her full name, criminal and familial history. The successful development of Babbage’s difference engine in the world of the novel transformed the United Kingdom from one in which power is divine, and perceived to be divinely bestowed, to one in which power comes from knowledge. It also had the effect of making information more easily available, so those with talent for clacking or thinking could do well.

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  16. Bryce Lanz

    Through the creation of Babbage’s mechanisms in “The Difference Engine” the world political balances are changed. Napoleonic France and Britain are allied over the overthrown of the dictatorial Duke of Wellington, the United States have never come together and Tsarist Russia is the major military front of the novels period. These political changes have ramifications in the origin of communism as Manhattan is the willing testing grounds for radical communism. Through the novel the great communist orators, Marx and Engels are placed in reference to the “Manhattan Commune”. We are given the majority of the details as to how the communism references and differs from the Soviet form we know during Oliphant’s conversation with the visiting ‘authoress’ Miss. America.

    Through the description of Miss America, the military issue cloak (p. 414), and her “Chickamaugas”( p.415) the methodology of how the Commune is subtly shown to be a manner similar to that of the Soviet Revolution of our own historical branch. Also noted in the description is the preference given to particular persons similar to communism -Soviet, North Korea, or Chinese – in the lavish wealth and precious metals that Miss America flashes at Oliphant. Though Communism developed earlier and in a different area of the mistrust of the ‘enemy to capitalist progress’ is similar as well, as Oliphant gives Miss America an interrogation reminiscent that of a common criminal informant.

    The inclusion of the Manhattan Commune within Gibson and Sterling’s narrative is imperative as it allows for cultural tension to have a beginning. With England and France allied and the freedom that Merit-based peerages have granted within both of these nations a common enemy to place the blame upon is necessary. The Manhattan Commune illustrates the coming battles that will shape the world of ‘The Difference Engine’, opposing the past that Tsarist Russia represents -both in its small number of references and relative strength compared to the British army. Should the novel have excluded the Manhattan Commune the fears of the protagonists exposed during The Stink would not have a point of reference.

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