This collaborative, speculative novel is set in an alternate-England during the industrial revolution. Charles Babbage has perfected the steam-powered, gear-driven “analytical engine,” a mechanical computer programmed with punch cards. In grimy 1850s-era London, three characters’ lives intertwine in the race to find a box of punch cards which will somehow change the very fabric of their society . . . although nobody knows what information those punch cards contain.
I was ready for this book to be extremely enjoyable. It has lots of attractions: riots, dinosaurs, intrigue, alternate histories of famous Victorian personages, a love story of sorts, prostitutes, MPs, and the question of what would have happened if the computer age had arrived ahead of its time. All of the pieces were in order, but the execution fell flat. This book just isn’t very interesting.
It seems that the biggest problems may have come with having two authors pen one novel. The character initially set up as the protagonist disappears after page 71 and isn’t seen again until a brief appearance on pages 423-6. The three main stories are not interwoven until the last section of the book, and when they do come together the effect is clumsy. The transitions between sections (there are four) are abrupt and somewhat jarring. Because the main stories don’t intersect, it is difficult to keep track of when each part takes place. I believe that the first three sections take place more or less at the same time, but I’m still not sure about that.
The Difference Engine could have been very good, and more’s the pity that it isn’t. The concept is certainly fascinating. The throwaway line about someone inventing transistors and capacitors and being dismissed as a kook is worth a small chuckle. In fact, the first section of the book, the one with the magically disappearing protagonist, Sybil Jones/Gerard, was quite good. It just sort of fell apart across the next three-hundred or so pages.
The ending — without giving anything away — was both confusing and inconclusive. It leaves room for a sequel that has never appeared and perhaps should remain unwritten.
Would I recommend The Difference Engine? Yes, albeit with the above qualifications. This alternate history is fascinating not in terms of its story, but in the world in which it is set. The plot is fairly dull, and clumsily executed. The created world of the novel is highly imaginative, and could easily handle multiple novels.