Printer Friendly

The Difference Engine.

In the 1830s, Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, conceived of a mechanical computer that he called an analytical engine. He was far from the first to invent a mechanical calculator; among his illustrious predecessors was Blaise Pascal. But Babbage's engine was the first that could perform complex operations by following sequential instructions on punch cards-what's called "conditional branching:' The era's technology was too coarse to manufacture the finely machined parts such a device would require, and so it languished, a road not taken. That is, until the punningly titled The Difference Engine, co-written by cyberpunk wizards William Gibson (author of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) and Bruce Sterling (best known for Schismatrix and Islands in the Net). The novel folds Steam Punk, a sci-fi style that deals in Victorian-era technofantasies, into the duo's cybernetic preoccupations. Set primarily in 1855 London, it imagines an alternative history in which Babbage's analytical machine has become the cornerstone of a new order.

In The Difference Engine's world, Babbage's brainchild leads to political and social revolution and diverts technology to alternate lines of development. Steam-powered gurneys chuff along the streets of this book's London while steam-powered subways course below them. Clothes not for the savants (as the learned aristocracy is known) or the industrial rich are cut according to stylized engine patterns. "Kinotroping" runs moving cards that project changing images, which depend for their speed, and thus their appeal and realism, on the skill of the "clackers " as the kinotropists are known. One of the foremost clackers is a onetime medical student named John Keats. Disraeli appears as a novelist/journalist. The Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Industrial Radical Party is Lord Byron, whose daughter Ada, the Queen of Engines, is at the heart of the novel's fierce dark-lantern plotting. (The historical Lady Byron, sometimes called the world's first programmer, developed a program for Babbage's machine to calculate the complex sequence called Bernoulli numbers.)

The British dominate world politics and economics. "America" is fragmented into the U.S.A., the C.S.A., the Republic of Texas, the Republic of California, unorganized territory (the Midwest) and the Manhattan Commune, founded by German emigre Karl Marx during the anti-draft uprisings of the Civil War. The French Empire rules Mexico and the Southwest. The Russian Empire claims Alaska. Implementing its balance-of-powers theory, Britain keeps them all at odds via labyrinthine stratagems that are increasingly engine-driven.

Only France, with its Grand Napoleon Engine-a Babbage machine with a hundred-plus miles of gearworks, almost double the capacity of the fearsome British Central Statistics Bureau-can rival Britain's control of its people. That's because only those two allied nations can track their populations from cradle to grave via an assigned number. Sound familiar? In The Difference Engine's alternative history, the postindustrial growth of the nation-state leads to covert totalitarian government nested within a liberal shell no matter what path technology takes. After all, who besides governments and their corporate underwriters can afford the expensive machinery? The underlying lesson is classic cyberpunk: Scientific humanity creates technology, which then determines everything from the models used to understand human nature (cybernetics as the paradigm for the brain's functions, for instance) to social organization and controls. Because technology intensifies the authority of those who can buy it, its development is inevitably channeled into heightened repression. Only on the margins is a relatively free life possible.

So, the plots of The Difference Engine revolve around a typical cyberpunk confluence-sex, money, the dark-side powers of technology, doses of mysticism and their overall usefulness to the corporate state-translated into a black comedy blend of fact and fantasy suitable for Dickens's nineteenth century. Take Lady Ada Byron, a mostly offstage presence who connects the narrative strands. A brilliant mathematician now past her intellectual prime, she's also promiscuous and deeply caught up in gambling debts and blackmail. Lady Ada's major discovery, encoded on a series of odd engine cards, is called the Modus, and is actually a version of Godel's Theorem. As she explains it, "The execution of the so-called Modus Program demonstrated that any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish its own consistency. . . . The transfinite nature of the Byron Conjectures were the ruination of the Grand Napoleon; the Modus Program initiated a series of nested loops, which, though difficult to establish, were yet more difficult to extinguish. The program ran, yet rendered its Engine useless!"

Lady Ada and her underworld confederates/blackmailers had wanted to use Modus as a gambling system. But in The Difference Engine it also stands as the post-Gbdel, post-Heisenberg overarching metaphor for human attempts at totalizing systems-political or mathematical or fictional-that inevitably spin out of control. Think of the book as a picaresque dystopia where the protagonists battle apparent evils they only think they understand to produce outcomes they haven't chosen. The search for the Modus, which gets stolen, passed around, hidden, and finally uncovered and confiscated by the ever-growing British secret police, is the twisted spine of the novel's complex tale.

Laurence Oliphant, head of Britain's secret police, sends the savant Edward "Leviathan" Mallory (who has been given the Modus cards by Lady Ada) to the Central Statistics Bureau. There, his contact Wakefield, the chief clerk of the Quantitative Criminology section, regularly runs cards on the bureau's huge engines to ferret out information the secret policeman and his bosses need. For Oliphant has a plan for how to use statistics and the huge engines: " Mightn't we examine society, sir., with a wholly novel precision and intensity? . . . Topics we now vaguely call police matters, health matters, public services-but perceived, sir, as by an all-searching, all-pervasive, a scientific eye!'" That strikes the square-rigged Mallory as "a Utopian fantasy." But Wakefield explains, " 'In theory, sir ... it is entirely possible. We naturally keep a brotherly eye on the telegram-traffic, credit-records, and such.' " Or, as Wakefield's assistant notes with less bureaucratic gentility,""We have everyone in Britain in our records. Everyone who's ever applied for work, or paid taxes, or been arrested.' "

The plot ratchets into high gear from there on. A thick atmospheric inversion, The Stink, finds London breaking out into a plague of looting and rioting as everyone but the poorest citizens flees for the countryside. In an extended set piece that lovingly parodies the British tradition of the derring-do amateur, Mallory takes on a Marxist/anarchist band of ragtag revolutionaries at their dockside warehouse headquarters, aided only by three others.

Oliphant himself straddles the poetic and the scientific realms, one of the fault lines in The Difference Engine demonstrated by the relationship between the always offstage Lords Babbage and Byron. At Byron's funeral his widow, the ironically named Iron Lady, bitterly recalls that she was the true if secret engine behind the party's success. It was she who linked Babbage and Byron with their mutually exclusive talents, matching the impractical and impolitic scientist with the passionate but hollow orator. It was also she who read the covert reports and signed death sentences, vindicating herself by bloody accounts: " Was not every civil evil we committed repaid, repaid ten-fold; for the public good?' "

Oliphant is made of less inflexible stuff. Like Coleridge (at whose American Susquehanna Phalanstery he finishes out his days in pursuit of utopian ideals) or Emerson, he too dreams of the all-seeing Eye the widowed Iron Lady invokes. But this engine-driven Eye's focus doesn't seem to be the illumination Oliphant had in mind when he began.

After an abortive attempt to steal the Modus, one of Oliphant's agents is snatched, continuing the ongoing daisy chain of covert activities. A sickened Oliphant says to Wakefield, " The level of violence in this society ... or rather, I should say, the level of unacknowledged violence, has become remarkable, don't you think, Andrew?' . . . They'll erase us; Wakefield said. We'll cease to exist. There'll be nothing left, nothing to prove either of us ever lived. Not a check-stub, not a mortgage in a City bank, nothing whatever.' 'Exactly what I'm on about, Andrew.' Don't take that moral tone with me, sir,' Wakefield said. Your lot began it, Oliphant-the disappearances, the files gone missing, the names expunged, numbers lost, histories edited to suit specific ends.... No, don't take that tone with me."'

Oliphant could think of no reply-and in such a world, his silence may be the beginning of wisdom. We have seen the engine, and it is us.
COPYRIGHT 1991 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Santoro, Gene
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 6, 1991
Words:1394
Previous Article:Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.
Next Article:Liubov Popova.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters