The Difference Engine

Narrated by: Simon Vance
Length: 14 hrs and 19 mins
3.5 out of 5 stars (462 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The Difference Engine is an alternate history novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It is a prime example of the steampunk sub-genre; It posits a Victorian Britain in which great technological and social change has occurred after entrepreneurial inventor Charles Babbage succeeded in his ambition to build a mechanical computer called Engines.

The fierce summer heat and pollution have driven the ruling class out of London and the resulting anarchy allows technology-hating Luddites to challenge the intellectual elite.

A set of perforated punch cards come into the hands of the daughter of an executed Luddite leader who sets out to keep them safe and discover what secrets they contain.

©1991 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (P)2010 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Starts strong, falls off

First of all, Simon Vance does an amazing job with this book. All kinds of British accents, and he nails each of them. The perfect ideal of expressiveness without melodrama from start to finish. So this is what a professional sounds like. If only I could get serious nonfiction books narrated with this level of talent.

The novel: written by two people, and it shows. It gives the impression that they worked together for a while, agreed to work separately on the rest, and then both mailed in half-baked work when they ran out of time. The first 1/3 is absolutely gripping and fascinating. The next 1/3 is a mediocre action story climaxing with a gunfight in a burning warehouse (the ultimate action cliche). The last 1/3 is told as a series of disjointed fragments revealing large chunks of leftover plot, as though the writer didn't have time to weave them together to give pacing and complexity.

I felt the book was worth my time, but ended up mourning the much better novel that could have been if the high standard of the first section had been kept up.

20 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Simon Vance is excellent as always, Gibson not so

The performance of this story is first rate, the story however I think tries too hard to include every notable figure of the era and in doing so loses something in pacing and structure.

Still a story worth listening too, just not first rate.

8 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Steampunk Neuromancer

Combining the cyberpunk, steampunk, and alternate history sub-generas of science fiction, The Difference Engine is truly a one of a kind novel. The basic premise: What if computers were created in Victorian England? The results is a vastly different and far grimmer world where the Imperial British Empire extends its rule across the entire world and well into the future... at least until the last few pages.

Regarding the plot, it’s worth warning you that this novel has a reputation for being often picked up, but seldom finished. That is because it’s a pretty complex read already, made more difficult by a noir detective plot that’s kind of all over the place. That said, I finished it and if you can make it to the ending there is a twist that explains why the story was told that way. Also, for what it’s worth, you get a lot more out of this a second time around.

As for the narration, this is definitely easier to listen to than it is to read. Simon Vance is one of my favorite narrators, so I’m biased towards any performance of his. That said, this is an extremely verbose novel with some fairly dense sections to it; and Vance still nails it. Overall, if I’ve at all piqued your interest give The Difference Engine a whirl. You’re in for quite the ride.

5 people found this helpful

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I expected something different

Maybe I'm not versed enough in steam punk culture and missed the point here. I expected somthing more along the lines of science fiction except steam driven devices and strange machinery. There was a smidgeon of that often as a quick backdrop and at times almost an afterthought. Instead I got a tale of social upheaval, historical receation of sorts, anti-communist essay, a very involved and complex mystery all intertwined with actual historical people served in a name dropping fashion. I never really did get the points of many character backgrounds and how they fit into the larger story. They last parts seemed an attempt to tie it all together that was brilliant in some spots, clumsy in others.

The audio was appropriately accented but at times was paced so quickly that I had to slow it down to understand it. This also required replays in many places to hear what was being said. Because there's a lot of period London/British vernacular I had to keep accessing a dictionary to know what a number of words meant. I don't mind that and it wasn't as frequent a need as William Shrier's books.

It was still not a bad tale but I still feel somewhat cheated because I thought it was going to be something other than what it proved to be. Maybe a film presentation would have had background scenery and effects that would have conveyed the steam age better as in the great animated feature "Steam Boy", but it didn't come through at all in the story. In fact, pull the couple steam vehicles, replace the 'engines' with mathematicians, add a few other minor tweaks and this is simply another novel set in the 1800s.

3 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Great Story!

William Gibson & Bruce Sterling are both fantastic authors & together they wrote a really great story!

Excellent listen - highly recommended.

3 people found this helpful

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Almost unlistenable

The narrator was actually quite good, and the story had an interesting premise, but the dialogue was so heavy-handed with 19th century jargon that it completely detracted from the story. It got to the point that it was completely unenjoyable.

1 person found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Honestly, pretty dull.

It had potential in the idea and setting... but wasted it in what became a tedious slog through a morass of political and sociological opinions thinly veneered with lifeless characters and a plodding half-baked mystery that didn't lead to anything interesting. I ultimately finished it more because I didn't have enough in my library to switch to something else until payday, rather than because of any inherent entertainment value in the piece itself.

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Steampunk alternative history

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling is an alternative history with a steampunk setting in England in the mid 1800's. Charles Babbage's 'difference engine', regarded as the world's first computer, albeit mechanical is extrapolated to have developed into a thriving business analogous to electronic computers 100 hundred years later. The story is told successively from three different perspectives surrounding a mysterious box of computer code of unknown function, but quite valuable. At the same time, weather conditions create a situation in London where much of the upper class, who rely on the technology of the machines have left town and a Luddite resistance emerges.

The steampunk components introduce a mechanical equivalent of electronic computer capabilities including modeling dinosaur structures from bones, video projections, and law enforcement forensic analysis. Historical figures are utilized extensively, while positing that England retained superior economic dominance due to Babbage's technology. A whole section near the end provides a global perspective with a divided America and Britain opening up Japan.

Given the British setting, the narration is quite good with all appropriately rendered British accents in an easily understand manner.

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Not Gibson's Best

I've been a huge fan of William Gibson's science fiction works for many years, particularly the Sprawl trilogy. While Difference Engine is an intriguing and entertaining alternate history thriller, I'm afraid I can't recommend it for fans of Gibson's other work. I found myself intrigued by descriptions of technology and "clackers", this world's equivalent of programmers, but the technological divergences in the world of Difference Engine quickly took a backseat to human drama that had little to nothing to do with the alternately advanced technological landscape (at least by my reckoning). Well written and fantastically delivered by Simon Vance, but unfortunately I was disappointed by my own misplaced expectations.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Steampunk Alternative History done righr

Alternative History can be overly simplistic. This one is not. Memorable characters. Solid plot. Well done. Excellent narration. Worth a listen.