If I need to read the Wikipedia entry on a novel after finishing it, does that mean I’m stupid or the book wasn’t meant for the likes of me? A bit of both, I think, in the case of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which I just finished (it’s not available from the Monroe County Public Library, I’m afraid, but you could get it like I did via interlibrary loan — thanks, Alachua County!).
This book, according to a very handy list I found at Flashlightworthy Books — a fine source for book recommendations of all kinds — is one of Steampunk’s founding texts and Gibson is one of those guys you’re just supposed to read, right? Steampunk/alternative history hasn’t been one of my genres, traditionally, but I do love the steampunk aesthetic — all those gears and cranks and analog contraptions. Not to mention blimps. LOVE blimps. Anyway I thought I’d give this one a try.
I was a little concerned when LibraryThing, which has a “will you like this book” function that is interesting though not quite as much fun as their “unsuggester,” opined that I probably would NOT like The Difference Engine, probability VERY HIGH. Not sure why, except that my online library probably has very little in common with those of people who loved the book. It did take me awhile to get into, but I would like to blame that on the fact that I was reading a couple other books at the same time, not the book or myself. It was fun to figure out who the real historical figures were (Lord Byron and his daughter, Ada, John Keats, Benjamin Disraeli and more) and how their fates had been altered by the book’s premise, that the computer revolution came at the same time as the industrial revolution and triumphed over Britain’s historical land-based aristocracy. And more — America by 1855 has splintered into several hostile nations, Britain is at peace with Napoleon III’s France, etc., and science has utterly triumphed over religion so figures like Charles Darwin are lauded public heroes, not just famous thinkers. I just wish the whole thing felt more like a novel and less like a puzzle I was supposed to figure out. This isn’t my first foray into alternative history — that would be Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, about which I’ve gushed before (it’s Britain during the Napoleonic Wars — with dragons!). But those books didn’t leave me feeling dumb, perhaps because they focused more on character and plot than concept.
Anyway I’m glad I read this, because I feel slightly less ignorant about steampunk. I plan to read more Gibson, especially since my husband has taken to leaving a paperback copy of Neuromancer prominently around the house. And I plan to read more steampunk, though I think I’m going to go graphic next with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which happens to be sitting on a shelf upstairs. That way I get to broaden my knowledge and get the aesthetic thrills. And I’m reasonably sure that like a true Alan Moore project it will be better than the movie. I’m giving this 3 1/2 stars (out of 5). If anyone’s interested in finding out more about steampunk, I recently came across a couple interesting articles: This one from Salon and this one from Library Journal.