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Friday, March 5, 2010

Books: "The Difference Engine"

Began this post weeks ago, and finally getting to finish it ...

"The Difference Engine" is my first steampunk book.  So to answer the obvious first question: "What the hell is steampunk?!?!?!" you can go here or here or here or here or here (these last two I happened upon a while ago -- people posting some fun-ish steampunky stuff).  But to keep you from having to read and read and read, the bottom line is that steampunk is one of these 'alternate reality' fictional (obviously) genres in which a gentleman named Charles Babbage, back in the 1800s in England, completed his project.  Ya' see, in real life Mr. Babbage was working on an "Analytical Engine", the world's first computer.  This was in the early-mid-1800s.  Keeping in mind that timeframe, this was before Tommy Edison and bunches of others invented electricity (yes, I know, nobody 'invented' electricity ...).  So Mr. Babbage used steam to power his machine.  In reality, he ran out of time, money and willpower (I guess the latter couldn't be powered by steam) and he never finished his Analytical Engine, and the world is as it is today.  In this alternate reality, however, he does finish, and so bunches of things change:
  1. Computers, and just about everything else, are run by steam rather than by electricity like they are now.  Technology evolves just a bit differently as everything is initially steam powered and since the computer was invented a century earlier in these stories than it was in reality, the order of technological events and revelations around the world changes too.
  2. Since this was in England, England became even more of a world powerhouse than it became in reality.  With the world's only computers at the time and the only expertise to make more, they would easily outmaneuver everyone else in just about everything: economics, military, technology, etc.
  3. The rest of the world evolved very differently in the ensuing ~150 years.  In the book for this post, America and North America as a whole as we know them in reality evolved into about a half dozen territories, some American, others Mexican, some British, and, of course, the Republic of Texas (which'll make some people happy).
So there you go.  Around the world nowadays there are steampunk conventions (sometimes in concert with sci-fi conventions), steampunk parties (in which people dress the part, oftentimes involving the wearing of brass goggles, since that is "the look"), steampunk magazines, steampunk everything.  I've even seen postings on-line with pics of people who have decorated their homes completely in the steampunk style.  Little of it is actually functional or steam-powered, but it does look impressive if you like that sort of thing.

So on to the book ...

Honestly, I don't really know how to explain it.  It is a bit of mystery.  A bit of adventure.  A bit of history, alternate history though it is.  A bit of politics (alternate).  And a good chunk of alternate technological inventions, which I liked.  The Difference Engine, an adaptation/improvement of Babbage's Analytical Engine, itself is basically what drives England's culture, its Government and its politics, its people, its businesses.  Somewhat like things are today with computers and the Internet; however, this was written, notably, in 1992, before the "Net" was really a household word.

In a nutshell, there are three main characters, sort of, who somewhat come together in their journeys.  And the story doesn't really flow directly from beginning to end, but works nonetheless.  It is more of a bunch of vignettes sort of placed together that all kind of fit together somewhat as they intermingle their characters ... sort of.  The authors do a very good job of explaining, in the greatest of detail, just about everything there is to explain --- people, events, places, things, colors and textures and smells and sights and ... everything.  This level of detail can easily, and usually does, overwhelm me as it quickly leads to boredom.  In this case, however, I liked it.  The old English jargon, the words and slang, I loved.  But maybe that's just me ...

I guess I'm not going to bother trying to explain the story itself, but it is a very entertaining read.  If you like steampunky stuff, this, I think, is a very good start.

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