The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

  1. The Difference EngineI have waited a long time to read this book. I’ve also waited about a month since I finished reading it before writing this post. This book is a lot. It is considered the seminal work of the steampunk genre. In it, Gibson and Sterling present a world where Babbage found wide success with his Analytical Engine and ushered in the computer revolution in the early 1800s.

Babbage Analytical Engine

Babbage invented this device, the Analytical Engine in 1837. It was the first Turing-complete digital computer, a century before that phrase would even be invented. In reality, Babbage had very poor success because of a number of factors. If he had been more successful with his invention, the computer revolution might have happened over a century sooner. This book tells the story of a world where that is the case; a dark and messy early-industrial world of steam and gears and engines.

Behind the main story, another story progresses in the shadows. It sort of follows Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and the scale problem of computation attempting to describe itself. This idea isn’t really resolved in the story, but it is overcome by the end of the book, if not in specific terms. The idea is that no system of language or mathematics can completely describe itself. People are trying to develop smarter and faster machines which are self-aware, but the problem of imperfect and incomplete mathematics and language becomes a barrier to further development. This problem is also modeled in several parallel social conflicts in the story.

This is a very complex and involved narrative. It will take a lot of future reflection and re-reading to really come to terms with what it’s trying to accomplish and to understand the meaning behind this multilayered work.