I have a problem with steampunk. And I say this as someone who grew up reading great Victorian stories of adventure and exploration, like the work of H Rider Haggard. Steampunk far too often romanticises privilege and Empire. Anxiety about the direction of contemporary society and its technology manifests as a wistful nostalgia for an alternative future branching out from the Industrial Revolution. One based on brass and steam rather than the microchip, and where everyone knows their place in society. It is a sub-genre that very rarely interrogates issues of class, colonialism and gender, instead perpetuating very problematic attitudes under the fiction that this “is just how things were”. (No, it wasn’t, as any half-way decent scholar of Victorian society would tell you.) It’s all corsets, tea, gin and brass goggles, not child labour, poverty, disease and worker exploitation.
I had high hopes for The Difference Engine. It promises conspiracy at the highest levels of government and adventure. Both William Gibson (famously the inventor of cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling have great credibility as writers looking at the disruptive impact of technology. But ultimately, the novel just didn’t deliver for me.
The plot of the novel is a bit of a mess. It starts well, with a murder that sends a prostitute named Sybil on the run to France with some stolen diamonds and a set of Engine punch cards that are highly sought after. But we then don’t hear of Sybil again until the end of the book. The flabby middle section follows Mallory tracking down a rebel called Captain Swing who is threatening to ruin his reputation. Characters drift in and out, and there is no clear resolution of any of the plotlines. The promised high-level conspiracy does not materialise in any meaningful way.
The characters are also extremely disappointing. Female characters are few and far between, and generally prostitutes or identified as sexually promiscuous. Mallory’s sister is a mere plot device that we never get to meet. Lady Ada Byron, based on Ada Lovelace, is venerated as the Queen of Engines, but there is no sense of her transformative and visionary genius in the novel. She is a faded figure with a gambling habit who barely makes an appearance.
As well as being sexist, it’s also crashingly racist. I winced in particular at the portrayal of some Japanese gentlemen who do little more than be ninjas for hire, while extolling the virtues of Victorian industrial progress and asserting that the Japanese should aspire to replace their culture and language with their English equivalents. All delivered in a deeply offensively stereotyped set of speech patterns. There is no examination of colonialism or Empire at all. Johnny Foreigner is just there to benefit from the wisdom, progress and knowledge of the English.
Goodreads rating: 1*