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Re: [vox] The first programmer...
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Re: [vox] The first programmer...

Quoting Dave Peticolas (dave@krondo.com):

> For a good read, check out "The Difference Engine", by William
> Gibson and Bruce Sterling, a niece piece of 'alternative history'
> in which Babbage manages to build his mechanical computer and the
> information age happens about a century early.

On balance I liked it, but it was very peculiar and uneven.  The tone
is all over the place, and some parts are just plain flat -- and there's
no real straightforward story.  It's not really a novel, but rather a 
collection of loosely related story snippets.

It's a spy novel (the McGuffin being a set of punched cards everyone
seems willing to kill for), it's a detective story, it's a classic
Victorian adventure story, it's a historical thriller, it's demented
social commentary... it doesn't know what it wants to be.  Think "The
Secret Adventures of Jules Verne", as to style, anyway.

In the book, one consequence of Babbage's having successfully invented
the modern computer (but steam-driven!)  was that Victorian England
became far and away the world's dominant power.  The US Civil War never
got resolved, because Britain propped up the South to keep America weak.
Texas went independent -- it, the USA, and the CSA remained shut out of
the West because of Britain supplying arms to Indian tribes.  And
Manhattan is an independent anarchist commune, led by immigrant Karl
Marx.  (All of that is conveyed as background, only.)  

Britain is at the time of the novel going through the Industrial and
Information Revolutions, simultaneously -- and had undergone a bloodless
coup that put a party of scientists and businessmen -- the Industrial
Radical Party -- in political power.  The excess industrial waste heat
and pollution drive the power elite literally out of town; society has
begun to fracture because of conflict between them and the luddite
working class in the cities.

But the story just runs out of -- forgive me -- steam about halfway
through, and then just muddles around for a hundred pages.  The final 
chapter isn't any kind of ending:  It has, I kid you not, a bunch of
news clippings, followed by a stilted monologue at the end that we are 
probably supposed to understand is an artificial intelligence achieving
sentience (in an alternate 1991).

There are some amazing bits in this.  A Texas Ranger comes stomping
through the story at one point.  And one of our several main characters
is a government secret agent who's been charged with, among other
things, keeping tabs on a visiting Japanese would-be industrialist.  He
keeps condescending to the Japanese visitor, amused at his zeal to learn
how to study and surpass Britain by, I suppose, putting Japan through a 
double-time version of the Meiji Restoration.  "We will make _every_ 
sacrifice [to catch up]", he keeps muttering through clenched teeth.

Cheers,   "This is mad, egotistical, sick, twisted, and stretches the bounds of
Rick Moen   good taste right off the tongue, past the uvula, and down around 
rick@linuxmafia.com      the duodenum.  It has other merits, but that should 
           indicate positive interest."  -- The Cube, http://www.forum3000.org/
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