A stand-alone alternate history book.

Publication year: 1991
Format: print
Page count: 429
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

The Difference Engine is set in 1885 London in a world were Charles Babbage invented a working difference engine; a computer. The Industrial Radical Party has come to power, led by Lord Byron who has become the Prime Minister. They’ve set up Lordships my merit instead of inheritance.

By 1885 steam engines are everywhere and London’s environment is starting to suffer from the many coal engines. The summer is uncommonly hot and that makes tempers short. Most of the wealthy have fled London but the poor have no other place to go to. People wear face masks to ward off the horrible smell (called the Stink) and the vapors which rise from the Thames. Meanwhile, the land which is USA in our time, is here divided between the Republic of Texas, French Mexico, Republic of California, Russian Alaska, USA, Confederate States of America, and the unorganized territories. Canada is called British North America here.

The book has three different parts. The first follows Sybil Gerard, a daughter of a Luddite leader. After her father’s execution, she’s had to earn her living any way she can. She lives under a false name and is currently a prostitute, although a gentlemens’ escort rather than a street walker. But then one of her customers reveals that he knows her real name and wants her to become his apprentice; an apprentice adventuress. Sybil agrees almost without thinking. This decision leads her into danger. The last 70 or so pages are from the point-of-view of Laurence Oliphant, a journalist and the Queen’s spymaster.

Unfortunately, most of the book is from the pov of Edward Mallory who is an explorer and has a doctorate in Paleontology. His section actually starts deceptively interestingly with a steam gurney race during which Mallory mixes up with shady dealings. But after he comes to London, nothing much happens. He goes around meeting boring people and having boring conversations with them, which are only tangentially related to the plot. The section also contains one of the least appealing sex scenes I’ve ever read. The other time Mallory has sex is mercifully described only briefly. Mallory has a scholarly rivalry with one his collages about whether the huge dinosaurs lived on land or water. That was probably the most entertaining part.

London and it’s people are described wonderfully. There are long descriptions of various places and engines. The desperation and unhappiness that the poor have to suffer comes through wonderfully. It’s just that nothing much happens. For the whole time I had the frustrating feeling that something very interesting is happening in the world, but outside this book. For example, I would have loved to know how Lord Byron managed to overcome his sordid reputation and managed to become the Prime Minister. At the start of his section, Mallory has just returned from an exploration trip from the USA. He’s been digging up dinosaur bones and running guns to the Native Americans. Much more interesting that what happened in the book! Some of my questions were answered during the last 30 pages which were fragments from books, interviews, articles, journals, etc. Sadly even this part succumbs to boredom before long.

The writers have several historical people in the book: John Keats is a kinotropist and is seen only briefly, Texas’ president Sam Houston is in exile in London, Lord Byron’s daughter Lady Ada, the Queen of Engines, is also seen only briefly, and Benjamin Disraeli has a conversation with Mallory. Babbage and Lord Byron are referenced but not seen directly.