The Difference Engine by William Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Difference Engine is the supposed grandaddy of all steampunk stories of the modern era. Recently I've gotten into steampunk sci-fi (and dressing up in pith helmet and khaki clothing with various goggles and accessories), so I thought I'd immerse myself in it.
The alternate history story that Gibson and Sterling create is breath-taking at times... To consider how famous personalities such as Darwin, Babbage, Byron and Marx could have taken an alternate course and altered our world is mind-boggling to contemplate. But, sadly, the story seems complete in all aspects save one. The political, social, mechanical, military angles are all covered well, but it's the individual characters' story arcs which don't seem quite complete.
What really becomes of Sybil or Lady Ada? Does Dr. Mallory go on to bigger and better adventures? Is Oliphant about to retire? We don't really find out, and it's frustrating. The steampunk world is described in such intricate detail, and the reader comes to feel that it is a real place with real possibilities, but we don't get to dwell in it with any one character we sympathize with for long.
So I'd have to give The Difference Engine four and half stars for creating a world where the steam engine reigns supreme but only two stars for the characters who dwell there. Perhaps that's a fine balance for most fans of the genre, but strong character arcs could have made it a five star must read.
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