Set mostly in 1855, The Difference Engine imagines what might have happened if Charles Babbage had succeeded in creating a workable computer in the 1820s, which he called “The Difference Engine“. It’s part of a genre of science fiction which has become known as “Alternative History”: short stories and novels whose plots hinge on history going down a different route at some cucial point. My favourites in this genre include Pavane by Keith Roberts , the Time Patrol series by Poul Anderson and The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest. Inevitably there is a website devoted to this genre,called Uchronia. Some of the novels mentioned on this site look intriguing, but many of them look deathly dull. Just how many novels in which the South won the American Civil War does the world need?
In this England the “Rads”, the Industrial Radical Party of industrialists and scientists, backed by the working class, seized power in a revolution in the early 1830s, overthrowing the aristocracy and killing the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Now Lord Byron is Prime Minister, while his daughter Ada (who in our timeline did work with Babbage on his computing ideas) is known as “The Queen of Engines”. The “Rads” use the Engines to enhance their wealth and power, and also to closely monitor its citizens. Dissent is crushed.
The United States, whose affairs play a minor role in the story, has split into four countries with a northern state, a Confederacy, and an independent California and Texas. Lord Engels is a cotton magnate in Manchester, while Karl Marx is the leader of a Communist Commune in Manhatten.
The main character is Edward Mallory, a scientist and explorer, who embarks on a journey across London in pursuit of a set of computer cards stolen from Ada Byron. He is aided by his brothers, and Fraser, a secret policeman. They run up against a secret organisation led by “Captain Swing” which is planning a revolution against the “Rads”. The journey shows vividly that that in this society there is still rich and poor, avarice and violence. A minor part is played by Sybil Gerrard, daughter of a Manchester Chartist (executed by the Rads twenty years before), who has come into possession of the cards.
This is a description of the Engines, whose operators are known as “clackers”, by the way:
Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines – so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye – the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as rail cars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The whitewasheed ceiling, thirty foot overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns.White- coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. Their hair was swaddled in wrinkled white berets, their mouths and noses hidden behind white gauze.
For me the strength of the novel lies in portrayal of this alternative London, familar yet alien. The most interesting character is Sybil but, disappointingly, after encountering her at the start of the novel working as a prostitute and becoming involved in the hunt for the cards, she flees to France after her paramour is murdered, and we only meet her again at the end, now wealthy and established, when she attends a lecture given by Ada. The male characters are far less interesting, do not change, and the novel runs out of steam, so to speak, after the defefeat of Swing. The novel ends in 1991 in a glittering crystal London as, it seems, an Engine achieves self-consciousness :
Dying to be born.
The light is strong,
The light is clear;
the Eye at last must see itself
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