Romanticism & Contemporary Culture
The Difference Engine in the Romantics Classroom
Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1991) starts with an intriguing idea: it rewrites Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil, an industrial novel about the reconciliation of the classes, as a historical fantasy that traces the roots of today's information society back to nineteenth-century England. The authors, best known as the pioneers of cyberpunk science fiction, take Babbage's invention of a computing machine in 1822 as warrant for imagining the advent of the computer age a century before its time. Their novel presents the nineteenth century as a full-blown information order, complete with massive databases on citizens, surveillance apparatus, photo-IDs, credit cards, rapid international data transmission via telegraph, and scientific societies that serve as unofficial intelligence arms of the military. So persuasive has their historical conceit been that it has spawned a sub-genre of science fiction known as "steam-punk," which includes Rudy Rucker's The Hollow Earth (1992), Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age(1995), and George Foy's The Shift (1996).
Gibson and Sterling's novel is fun—at least in places. It is amusing to read of John Keats, consumptive former medical student, as a pioneer of the silent cinema; of Reverend Wordsworth and Professor Coleridge, leaders of a thriving Pantisocratic community in America; of Lord Byron, Prime Minister of England, and of his daughter, Lady Ada Byron, Queen of a loose confederacy of hackers, called "clackers," because of the sound made by the mechanical parts in their steam-driven computers. The variations on Disraeli's novel are clever as well. Sybil Gerard, the idealistic daughter of a Chartist agitator, does not marry her aristocratic suitor Charles Egremont but is seduced and abandoned by that ambitious politician; she becomes the lover of a minor character from Disraeli's novel, Mick Radley, who here is involved in international espionage and computer software theft. Events in Disraeli's novel, both large and small, are effectively transmogrified for the contemporary plot. The riot at Mowbray Castle in Sybil, for example, becomes a vast Luddite uprising in London in the later novel, and offhand references to horse racing in the first two chapters of Disraeli inspire a key episode at the races, this time of steam-powered gurneys. The latter incident provides Gibson and Sterling with a vivid way of introducing to the story Ada Byron's gambling and laudanum habits, which are based on historical sources.
In the few years since its publication, The Difference Engine has garnered some remarkable praise from sources as diverse as Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, and scholars writing in ANQ and Victorian Studies. The effusive praise and serious critical attention that the novel has received largely glosses over the book's pervasive misogyny and its long middle section that glorifies the violent exploits of Mallory in what amounts to a conventional science fiction shoot-em-up. The story follows the violent plot form of the techno-thriller, a genre that relegates women to sexual appendages of the hero or to threatened objects of technological stalkers and government conspiracies. These elements present challenges for the teacher, for students are often so taken with the fast pace of the narrative that they overlook what seem to me to be serious drawbacks with the novel.
The most valuable use for The Difference Engine in the classes I have taught has been to highlight questions of the status of history and periodization in the formation of knowledge. The most serious claim for the importance of The Difference Engine lies in its postmodern approach to history. Gibson and Sterling's fictional transformation of the past accords well with postmodern arguments about the constructed nature of all historical knowledge, which allows one to engage this interesting topic (regardless of one's view of the merits of the postmodern position). The vivid alternative world the novel creates brings to life the theoretical issues behind the historical enterprise, issues that often seem abstract and unrelated to the interests of undergraduates in the Romantics classroom.