Kurt Gödel by Any Other Name

Allana, thanks for laying out all these references like this. Until looking at it all in your chronology, I didn't really get the whole thread of the Modus, but you are right, the supposed mathematical dysfunction is recognizable.

It's Gödel's incompleteness theory.

This spells it out quite clearly:

And yet the execution of the so-called Modus Program demonstrated that any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish its own consistency. There is no finite mathematical way to express the property of 'truth.'

That's exactly Gödel's first incompleteness theorem.

You can think of it as the formalized logical equivalent of saying:

"This sentence is false."

The falsity of that sentence is not provable by the logic of the language's meaning. If it is indeed false then actually the sentence is true, but if it is true it cannot be false. There is simply no possible way to resolve the falsehood of that sentence using language logic.

The incompleteness theorem does a similar (though not paradoxical) thing with statements of provability. It basically says:

"Obviously true logical statement X is not provable within Theory Y"

I don't have the math here solid enough myself to get any more descriptive, but this is always true of any set of mathematical proofs assembled into a theoretic framework. There are an infinite number of obviously true logical statements within that Framework that cannot be proved by reference to proofs within that framework. It's not that proofs haven't been found, it's that they cannot be found. They are impossible. It's like impenetrable logical singularities littering the knowableness of everything.

Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorem in 1929. It looks like Gibson and Sterling have cast Ada Byron as the Kurt Gödel of 1855. Maybe the disorder of the Grand Napoleon is an analog for the disruption caused by the dawning awareness that human beings can't comprehensively prove the existence of anything. 1932 is known as the Miracle Year in physics as in that one year most of the basic framework of Quantum Physics fell out of the heads of a circle of physicists and mathematicians surrounding Niels Bohr. These fellows were aware of Kurt Gödel and his work. It's as though the introduction of the incontrovertible evidence of the unproveableness lurking inside all of our frameworks of knowledge set off a cascade of insight that undid the certainty underpinning all of human thought.

I need to give this more thought. I'm sure the authors are going for something with this in the context of physical computation.

The Modus Program.

Finally, we're at the point where things can get assembled without anyone screaming Spoiler! Oh, how I've waited.

Here's a summary of the travels of the Napoleon cards, with page numbers:
1. Mick has them, alluding to Ada's aid in acquisition. (28)
2. Sybil sends them to Paris and picks them up there. (57)
3. Sybil gives the box to the Fils de Vaucanson, specifically Theo Gautier. (392)
4. Theo runs them through the Napoleon and affects its powers of higher reasoning. (386)
5. The box is stolen by Flora Bartelle and brought back to Britain. (386)
6. Mallory is given them by Ada for safe-keeping; he hides them in the Brontosaurus. (94; 216)
7. The box, revealed by Flora and the Marquess, is given to Oliphant at the crime scene, with a note from Ada to Flora and Collins. (377 and 375)
8. Oliphant gives the cards to Keats, to find out what they are. (415)

Keats, of course, doesn't tell us, but Ada does, sort of, a bit. In the very last section of the novel, the Queen of Engines gives us a long-awaited acknowledgement of the Modus and its operation, which I now think of as something like the computer running through infinite tic-tac-toe sequences at the end of Wargames (anyone else?):

"And yet the execution of the so-called Modus Program demonstrated that any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish its own consistency. There is no finite mathematical way to express the property of 'truth.' 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! It was indeed a painful lesson in the halting abilities of even our finest ordinateurs.
"Yet I do believe, and must asset most strongly, that the Modus technique of self-referentiality will someday form the bedrock of a genuinely transcendental meta-system of calculatory mathematics. The Modus has proven my Conjectures, but their practical exfoliation awaits an Engine of vast capacity, one capable of iterations of untold sophistication and complexity."

This is a partial list of the varying theories and explanations of the Napoleon cards:
"... No one can get it to run." (22)
"A certain nested series of mathematical hypotheses." (27)
"Amuse [Babbage]...." and "gambling system...." (30)
"It is gambling-trouble. Lady Ada has a Modus.... It is a legend in sporting circles, Dr Mallory. A Modus is a gambling-system, a secret trick of mathematical Enginery, to defeat the odds-makers. Every thieving clacker wants a Modus, sir. It is their philosopher's stone, a way to conjure gold from empty air! .... I'm no mathematician, but I know there's never been any betting-system that worked worth a damn. In any case, she's blunded into something nasty again." (188-189)

The supposed mathematical dysfunction created in the Napoleon is probably easily recognized by people better at pure mathematics than I -- but I know enough about programming to know that anything resembling the organic world would be massively complex and self-referencing, constantly checking and adjusting untold variables. Suffice it to assume that the program is correct in a way simpler minds cannot comprehend, that the so-called "error" in the Napoleon is actually just un-computer-like behaviour.

Does said effect take 140 years to germinate, culminating in the self-creation of an omniscient artificial intelligence? Well, maybe. The authors certainly seem to hope so. Is the program, in fact, a gambling aid, capable of analyzing probability via game and set theories? Probably not, when you think about it. What kind of conversation must Ada have had with Mick or his clacker associates when the cards were first created? How could knowledge of the program have gotten to such unsavoury characters as the tout and the tart? What are we missing?

Dramatis Personae: Ada Byron.

We meet Ada on Derby Day; she makes no more personal appearances until the very end of the novel. Seemingly either drugged or under much personal strain, she rambles about the mathematical predictability of harmony, and the creation of "marshaled regiments" which "shall ably serve the rulers of the earth." Then she runs off, impish little scamp that she is.

Her next speaking role is onstage in Paris, where her theory loses much of its majesty in being presented so formally. She tosses out a loose reference to Leibniz, who modelled a crank-operated calculator, and seems quite stoic in the face of her own achievements being unrealizable.

I'm unimpressed with the apparent disconnect between Ada's science-oriented mind and the gambling obsession everyone else credits her with. The Modus may very well have been for the purposes of gambling, but I think that, in her mind, being able to predict the movements of horses and dogs is secondary to the ability to predict, uh, everything. She hasn't been painted as a person with such self-awareness -- I think of the long-standing tradition of television characters with the ability to time-travel or see visions to hone in on winning lottery tickets before anything else. (Except in Early Edition. That guy was totally altruistic. He even fed the cat.)

Of course, seeing the entirety of organic movement represented in pure data would maybe "suck the life-blood from the mysteries of the universe," a crime for which she blames the Royal Society. Then again, maybe she means it as a compliment. It is rather hard to tell. Ada's passion seems quite single-minded, narrow of purpose -- I have as hard a time believing the gambling talk as I do the suggestion made by that prostitute of Mallory's that Ada sleeps with whomever she wants in the House of Lords. What I do wonder about is whether Ada's true-to-life mathematical obsession would have survived in this rewritten world.

To be a real stickler about the whole thing: Ada became an adept in the maths and sciences because her father was a philandering sissy, a poet and lover: in other words, an inadequate father figure -- with the added bonus of frustrating Ada's mother to the point of separation. Had Byron instead channeled those passions into politics and power, empowering as he does in the novel a generation of radical thinkers and change-affecters, what motivation would Ada's mother have had to push her daughter into such manly studies? Her unquestioned aptitude would more likely have sat dormant all her life, buried amidst the frills of a high-ranking socialite.

I mulled over this theory-breaker six months ago, when I flipped through a few Ada biographies, but was reminded of it from a trip through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, trying to identify precisely where Byron and Shelley could've become so politically inflamed, so socially-minded, that they would've borne arms against each other -- or where Samuel Coleridge espoused a Fourierist approach to society -- or why Wordsworth would ever found a church, let alone join an existing one. No luck. As far as authorial "what ifs" go, I'm more unimpressed with Gibson and Sterling the more I think about it. So I'll stop thinking about it.

Iteration the Fifth.

My hero! He's returned!

I love Oliphant. Can't help it. Won't bother apologizing. From his first speaking appearance when interviewing Mallory, when he gazes off into the distance and ruminates on some mystic vision, he makes gallant Neddie look positively one-dimensional. Oliphant seems just as schizophrenic as Ada, then swings back with some admirably self-assured promises of mystery and intrigue. My kind of man.

Reading this iteration brought me to the conclusion that the story in the middle three iterations is entirely crap, and could be mostly removed. Oliphant is our hero and Sybil, via likeable Mick, his catalyst. The stories in the first and fifth, wrapped up cleverly in the Modus, are the true grit of the story. I think what most readers complain of is falling too into the pulpy Mallory bits and ignoring the political affairs entirely.

What's most interesting about said political affairs is that they're comprised mainly of North American troubles, albeit affected by our characters in London and Paris. Europe is nothing more than a pretty tinted filter for those intricate plot developments: Britain's petty uprising during the Stink came to nothing, while the movements of American Marxists and sub-factions thereof are going to have far more interesting repercussions. The depiction of Marxism in the book is going to be worth of its own post soon, I'm afraid, so I'll leave this train of thought here.

I found all sorts of things in this chapter endearing. I loved the sneaky bits with Wakefield and his assorted spies and messengers; I loved Mister Hermann Kriege and the idea of Oliphant as an 'Uncle Larry.' I like the idea of "factions within the Party... Anarchists disguising themselves as communists... covert cells not under Manhattan's control...." I'm baffled by the pantomime, alarmed by the rubber bathtub, and rather despondent about the whereabouts of Betteredge. All in all, an excellent time was had.

(Oh yeah, and there was that evil-men-apprehended-world-turned-to-rights-everybody-rejoice stuff too. That was good, too.)

Dramatis Personae: Lord and Lady Byron.

So, I've got a text file about *yea* long full of half-cocked ramblings on Difference Engine topics various and sundry. I'm getting far too involved in the political maneuverings and double-dealings, as explained in the Fifth Iteration and the Modus -- plus I've startled delving into the reimagined personalities, such as the poets-gone-revolutionaries and the politicians who *would've* been in power had the Rad Lords not taken over. There's really nowhere to start but from the top, here, so let's talk Byron.

With thanks again to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, I managed to snag a few Byron quotes from some of his major works. While I'd by no means say Byron was a political poet, it's about as possible as it is with any prose-writer that his words could be taken as incendiary mottos. From Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

"Who would be free themselves must strike the first blow."

"He who ascends to mountaintops shall find
The loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow;
He who surpasses or subdues mankind
Must look down on the hate of those below."

"Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunderstorm against the wind."

And from The Corsair:

"Such hath it been - shall be - beneath the sun
The many still must labour for the one."

(Plus, he wrote a poem about Keats after his death! As did Shelley!)

Byron was, in fact, involved in politics, for a very short and tumultuous time. In particular, he defended the Luddite movement in Britain and was pretty rough on good ol' Wellington. While definitely a man of the people, Byron isn't such a fan of machine-labour. I guess we have the Iron Lady's influence to thank for that rewrite. It seems safe enough to assume that, had Byron not died, his budding political fervor would have carried him back into the House in '24.

The issue created in the Modus is of Anne Milbanke, the Iron Lady, not only staying with him after Ada's birth in '16 but actively encouraging him -- then using his power for her own ends. This strategy on the part of the authors was advisable, as not much in the way of historical biography exists to refute the possibility. This insinuation of the Iron Lady as the catalyst for Ada's and Babbage's passions, as as driving force bigger than characters like Byron, Wellington, Shelley, and Disraeli -- well, it's a powerful one for me.

What we do know about Lady Byron is that she held her own political views, including abolishing slavery, and was quite outspoken about them. She was also an excellent student, especially in mathematics. I don't want to run too far into Ada territory on this one, so suffice it to say I'm a huge fan of the Iron Lady coup in the Modus. It's the sort of clever spin you wish hadn't come so goshdarn late in the storyline.

Iteration the Fourth, Redux.

For the purposes of getting myself up to speed, I started back mid-fourth, just after the sex scene: Mallory walks a deserted, apocalyptic Whitechapel at dawn. While I'm a big fan of anarchic scenes in fictional texts (Mad Max, anyone?), this imagining really wasn't so imaginative.
Okay, the descriptions of a madman's propaganda were cool, what with seven-cursed whores and pounds of flesh and etc. But, apart from irksome dialogue and some entertaining diversory references ("... Wait, did that just say 'Reverend' Wordsworth?!"), the rest of the iteration is pretty pulpy, full of sound and fury. The ending contains a passage I can't let go, no matter how I wish I could: "A section of roofing collapsed, quite slowly, like the wing of a dying swan."
The image following, of Mallory strolling jauntily through burning wreckage, broken-shoed and blurry-eyed, grinning dreamily, to emerge into a London rain -- that's a relief, a classic Bond-style ending, something canonical with which to end all the campy farce. The iteration gave a lot more, reference-wise, on second reading, but my opinion stays the same: Dreck. Utter.

Mad Max
Mad Max: We don't need no stinkin' moral high-ground.

The way the authors open and close their iterations is worth a moment: I wouldn't identify the choice as stylistically sound. The abstracted, personality-less descriptions of tableaux do nothing to class up the pulpy mid-sections, nor does the rollicking high-energy storyline lend an elegant contrast to the bookends.
While I wouldn't exactly call the presentation "disruptive," this is only by virtue of the whole experience lacking in any immersive qualities. It simply doesn't work for me, and I don't know why the authors chose it.

I see Gibson's cyberpunk style perverted in two directions: I miss the cool, sterile voice of Virtual Light and Neuromancer observing uncomplicated characters moving fluidly between scenes of violence, tension, sex, and awe. Here it's split in two directions: cheesy, faux-clinical analysis marred with single-line paragraphs, and flat, uninviting protagonists inexplicably endowed with moments of inspired action.
Maybe I'm imposing expectations based purely on the relative contexts: people from the past are automatically naive and simple, while people from the future are impossibly complex and subtle. It could just be a reflexive dislike from the overuse of exclamation marks. Too many "cried," too many "Dammes."

Guns of the Rad Lords' Era: Part One - The Pepperbox

In her last post Allana mentioned looking up the Ballester-Molina handgun, which led me back to the book looking for a reference to it. The Ballester-Molina was an Argentine handgun first produced in 1938, making it an odd anachronism for this book. (Unlike Allana, I am still wired, and am weakly dependent on Wikipedia and flagrant unsubstantiated rumor.)

Maybe it's odd to nitpick anachronisms in a book the very premise of which is the effects mechanical computing would have had on the Victorian Era had it been as widely adopted as electronic computing was in the 1990s. But in every other respect this book has been so meticulously researched that it would really bother me if this handgun, decades out of place, somehow worked it's way in.

A quick thumb through of the novel again tonight did not turn up a reference to this gun. Allana, did you find a mention of it in there? I see it is in the Difference Dictionary, so it must be in there somewhere.

At any rate, the thumb through led me to this post, which, although it first must contain an apology for being so long in coming, also contains a the first of a list of guns used by people in the novel, which will make everything better, as guns notoriously do.

Pepperbox - Mick Radley's little pocket gun, looted from his corpse by the mysterious Ranger who then used it to shoot Sam Houston in the early pages of the book:
1837 Thurber & Allen Pepper Box
This image of a 1837 pepperbox revolver comes from Jimmy Smith's photostream.

The pepperbox was widely available in Victorian England and commonly used for self defense. It was cheap to make, much less complex than a single barreled revolver. Mick's was delicately made enough that the Ranger breaks the trigger accidentally after three shots. It is first described when Sybil mistakenly pulls it our of Mick's coat pocket:

Her left hand gripped a lump of hard, cold metal. She drew out a nasty little pepperbox derringer. Ivory handle, intricate gleam of steel hammers and brass cartridges, small as her hand but heavy.
(The Difference Engine, Page 7)

Given that description, it probably looked something like this:


Instead of the wooden handle, imagine ivory, and imagine the rotating barrels to be brass, and you'll basically have it.

Howerver, given that Mick is a self conscious Dandy and a bit of a Victorian Gadget Geek, I like to imagine he carried this version instead:


Even in its less ridiculous straightforward model, it was not easy to aim, the hammer often obscuring a good sight down the barrel, and so was usually shot unaimed at close range. Although this gun existed in some form as far back as the 1400s, the version of it that Mick would have owned was designed in the 1830s and had a long, respectable life. In addition to being cheap, it was also a little safer than a single barreled revolver, in that should a discharge accidentally light the powder charges in the other barrels, all the slugs had their own barrels to exit from. In a single barreled revolver, the there could be an injurious backfire. In the pepperbox, you'd just end up blasting your target with all barrels at once.

The Ranger gets off three shots with Mick's pepperbox before breaking the delicate trigger in his beefy Texian hands. The first one is aimed, the book tells us, but at very close range as Houston is standing right in front of him. Houston doesn't try to dodge, but challenges the Ranger to shoot him directly in the chest, which he does. But what happens next is telling. The Ranger leaps on Houston and presses the rotating barrel directly against Houston's body, firing two more times with the gun actually pushed physically into Houston's chest. This would be the surest way of insuring that you hit your target with such an iffy gun.

I really appreciate it when writers research details like this well enough to describe their characters using period items in likely ways.

There are several more guns in the book, and now I'm interested to find out if they are all treated as faithfully!

Terminology Rock, or, A concise apology to the Internet.

They have a good time in their leisure hours
A rare archival photo of Allana at her summer job?

I spend my summers doing manual labour, living in a tent. It's not glamorous, but it is good for the skin. (Until I get cancer.) Since I've been back, I've lived in a house on a dirt road, kilometres from the nearest convenience store. I don't have internet access at home. Thus, a six-month delay in both finishing book and blog and removing the word "failure" from my self-description.

I will, however, let you in on a choice upside to my current hermitage in the wilderness: my house contains a respectable library to which I have unfettered access. (I fancy myself a bit of a caretaker, actually.) What this means for you, dear reader, is that whenever I look something up in the Oxford Universal, the Chambers Biographical, or Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (so good), you now have the assurance that I haven't just copy-pasted some quasi-reliable Wiki, or even done a lackadaisical search on the Difference Dictionary. I'm doing it the old-fashioned way for the first time in my short, technology-addled life. And it's embarrassing to note how weak my short-term memory can be, and how desperately I wish these books were illustrated.

For example, the Leyden-jar mentioned on page 245, according to the OUD, is an electrical apparatus conducting charge from a tinfoil-coated glass bulb via a brass rod running through its corked lid. It uses the phrase "communicating with the internal armature." Now you know. (Sort of.)

Then I asked the CBD about a "Ballester-Molina" handgun, only to find a golfer and a Jesuit, which, though unhelpful, led me on a fascinating referential journey on the concept of original sin. (From 1449: "The sect of Pelagianys, which helden that a man bi his fre wil mai deserue heuen withoute grace.")

A phalanstery, circa 1850, refers to the Rousseauian and Fourierist (that's Charles, the social theorist, not Jean Baptiste, the mathematician that hung out with Napoleon) conception of small, socially integrated communities, self-sustaining and familiar. Rooted from "phalanx." Related to Panty-suckers. Err, Pantisocrats, who simply think all men are equal.

(And did you know that there is a Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, not just a Samuel Taylor Coleridge? The former being the composer of Hiawatha, I feel it would be especially unfortunate to confuse the two.)

Disaster! - Iterations Third and Fourth.

What I got out of these sections were a few ice floes of clever awash in an Arctic Ocean of dumb.

The passage about the windup girl seems the most gratuitous, though I said that about Rudwick, and Keats, both of whom have resurfaced multiple times since, if only in passing mention. But I'd hate to come up with some sort of exciting twist involving a Japanese drink-pouring automaton, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that it was just a pointless aside. I'm actually hoping for some of these plotlines to go unfinished, else it's going to be a slugger of an ending.

The extended sex scene in Sybil Jones's old room comes in a close second. No revelations there, unless you consider filthy gossip about the royal family useful. Maybe the authors felt the passage was needed to paint Mallory in a human light -- troubled, lonely. Mostly it just reminded me how easy it is to make sex lurid and decadent, even in print.

I will tell you what I loved about these two iterations: J. J. Tobias, Esq. What a satisfying little character he was -- everything from the great haircut to the cunning quip about everything taking twice as long as you think. (I really thought there was a natural law about this, but the name eludes me.) He had just the right touches of bashfulness and pride, eagerness to please and anxiety about breaking the law. And I could hear his cockney accent pouring through -- somehow they nailed his dialogue.

Basically I think these two iterations were a mess -- a lot of flashy plot movement all to say "Hey, Mallory's in trouble." I've gathered from reading other reviews that this was the main plot section, that the bulk of the sociopolitical hypothesizing was here -- part of me is disappointed, thinking that everything else will just be cleaning up the plotlines we've left open, but I'm partially relieved for the same reason. Maybe without that big save-the-world relevance they felt their book needed to contain, they can let loose with a bit more humour and ... well ... I'm not really sure what I'd want them to do. Surprise me, I guess.

A Railway to Heaven.

From toothpaw's flickr photostream.

I'm not even joking. Gibson and Sterling throw down this grimace-worthy gem on the 150th page, attributing it to some wholesome, granola-munching Victorian hippies:

"A group of Quakers, men and women, stood on the pavement outside the Palace. They were droning another of their intolerable sermonizing ditties, something about a 'railway to Heaven,' by the sound of it. The song did not seem to have much to do with Evolution, or blasphemy, or fossils; but perhaps the sheer monotony of their bootless protests had exhausted even the Quakers."
I always find these sorts of cultural snapshots interesting, but this one in particular because it reminded me of a George Orwell quote: "Socialism [draws toward it] with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." (from The Road to Wigan Pier, 1936)

Now, I could easily veer this post towards an analysis of the appearances of socialism in The Difference Engine. But I want to dally on the topic of middle-class cranks a bit more. They're all over the place, taking such diverse forms as the exiled Luddite movement and Florence Bartlett's cultish speech about "universal free love." It obviously doesn't take socialism to espouse these sort of contingent theories -- Bartlett also rants about eugenics and selective breeding, and is staunchly anti-drug-use. These ideas veer widely from those of the Pilates-practicing, probiotic-scarfing and antioxidant-guzzling cranks we see today, though they might all share toxin-free living with the Quakers. I find it funny that the one thing such radically different idealists could agree on is a body pure of chemicals and intoxicants. Of course, most agree to the idea without adhering to the lifestyle -- or they mix their fruit-juice drinking with smoking weed and having acid trips.

Faced with my most sensible friends going vegan and gluten-free, and staring into the headlights of an intoxicant-free life myself (I'm getting old, you know), I find that the idea of "body as temple" seems to be attacking me from all angles. An Anglican minister friend recently gave a short sermon about Jesus throwing merchants out of the temple, and likened it to treating your own body as a temple, keeping it pure, and respecting it as holy ground. Her main point was that the Jews forced the Gentiles out of the temple proper, and made them worship on "less holy" ground -- so of course they reacted with disrespect for the church and turned it into a marketplace.

This lesson is interesting to me -- even if something (Gentiles, drugs) seems unhealthy to you, you should let it into your temple/body anyways, but treat it with respect and it will respect you back. I've always been a firm believer in moderation: too much of anything is never healthy, but just the right amount will make you appreciate it all the more. Besides the feel-good moral of "expose yourself to new things, even if you don't think you'll like them," and ignoring the tempting rant about fad diets and incomprehensibly scientific-sounding bodily cures, I want to point out another tired theme: that everything is based on context. Eugenics-happy fascists and free-loving hippies both think drinking is bad, in their own special ways. Why? Are these both the types of people that can't muster up enough self-control to moderate their own behaviour, so they have to eradicate all dangerous substances and experiences entirely? Are these both the types of people to hop on board any trend that comes their way, and do it to excess, even if that excess will kill?

To be honest, I never had any idea what "Stairway to Heaven" was even remotely about. Anyone care to fill me in?

Fancy Optical Goods.

"They were behind Chelsea Park now, in a place called Camera Square, where the shops offered fancy optical goods: talbotypes, magic-lanterns, phenakistoscopes, telescopes for the amateur star-gazer." (pp. 211-212)

The phenakistoscope, invented in 1832, was a precursor of the zoetrope, an item most of us got to play with in third-grade science class. A phenakistoscope involved two spinning discs and a mirror, which is why it fell out of favour when the mirror-free (and multi-user-friendly) zoetrope came into greater use in the 1860s. I have a hard time imagining what kind of "market" might exist for things like this past a children's toy or a clever handmade gift (if you've enough artistic skill to make one) -- then again, huge audiences would gather to view Dioramas in the 1800s, which involve about as much storyline as zoetropes and their kind, so what do I know?

Image of a phenakistoscope animation from Wikipedia. (There's also this great little page, which includes some sample disc animations.)

The inventor of the Diorama, of course, was Monsieur Louis Daguerre, famous for a little thing known as photography. William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the aforementioned talbotype (or calotype, as he named it), was technically the first to get it right, but because the daguerreotype was more popular, Daguerre (along with his sidekick Nicephore Niepce) tends to get the recognition. The rough of it is that the daguerreotype was faster and clearer, but Talbot's process involved the negative/positive process we use today, which makes it much easier to copy a photograph. (FYI, the photographs I've used as examples here are not nearly as clear and precise as later ones, when the methods were perfected.)

Widely acclaimed as the first photograph, Niepce captured this in 1826 and titled it View from the Window at Le Gras.

I'm not entirely certain what these camera shops are selling: finished photographs, negatives, or unexposed papers soaked in silver iodide? The book is set so soon after daguerreotypes and talbotypes were announced that I have a hard time seeing either of those methods assuming the state of curios and being deemed fit for child's play. The processes were still expensive enough to maintain a higher-class dignity. I also find it strange that most business cards and posters in the book use an illustrated portrait method that fits the pointillist style of the Difference Engine's printers, one that I assume would require a human artist, rather than a photographic portrait modified into pointillist form. That's the sort of expensive work I'd expect people to clamour after.

A talbotype of a latticed window in Lacock Abbey, taken by Talbot in 1835.

Typogram II.III - You Surely Can Unweave Rainbows

Allana: Well, at least we've pinned down our respective characters.

Bill: Yes, it helps me greatly to understand your approach to the book. Most of the experience of fiction, to me, takes place below the level of style -- mostly I react to it like I'm getting a glimpse into the way the author thinks: do they have clever, surprising thoughts? Do they think about things in ways I haven't? I tend to like authors that do that, authors with whom I feel like I'm in a surprising conversation, as I work my way through their books.

Allana: See? This is what I was talking about in one of my first Known Issues, about criticizing music -- you have to figure out whether you identify with the writer, and if you don't, then just know to do the opposite of what they recommend. Now our readers can just pick whichever one of us they agree with more. Simple!

Bill: Yes, we'll need to design warning icons to signal to casual readers which approach each of us are taking. Sort of like those triangular caution signs Warren Ellis has been playing with in Doktor Sleepless.

Allana: There's nothing so different between us as far as "think[ing] about things in ways I haven't." But what I get off on is having people describe things I've never thought to describe, in words I wish I would've used had I done so. I like being blown away by the mundanity of human experience, but also the beauty that can be created in acknowledging it. That sounds pretentious, doesn't it?

Bill: Any talk about the experience of art sounds pretentious. I think you just have to dive in and sound pretentious, and not care. Pretentiousness is more a problem of the listener/reader who doesn't want to understand what you mean than it is yours.

Allana: This is true, but I have the critic's naive hope of being universally understood.

Bill: It doesn't hurt to strive for clarity, but I don't think you should tread too cautiously in doing that. And I get what you mean about being blown away by minutiae, and creating beauty in the description of that experience. That's exactly the beauty of "Unweaving the Rainbow" that Richard Dawkins was getting at, in answering the romantic charge that science reduces mysteries to the mundane. It doesn't -- it elevates the mundane into the mysterious. You surely can unweave rainbows, but the structure underneath is more astonishing than the colors. FOR SCIENCE!

Allana: Oh right -- art link.

They're all from the same blog - here's one related to your last sentence:

Bill: Those covers are brilliant!

Allana: And another that made me think "Why didn't I think of that? Why can't I do that?" -- without wasting too much time looking for perfect examples.

Allana: They're geometrical, biological -- that stuff's easy! It's in my brain all the time! Why can't I just see the stuff in front of me in the way that would make beautiful art, think about it in words that would make beautiful writing?

Bill: I know exactly that feeling. Have you been watching the remake/remodel threads on Whitechapel? Lately they've got into a lot of art-design styling, and I'm constantly floored, wishing I could intuitively arrange shapes in that way.

Allana: Oh, yeah. Don't even get me started on Lance Sells's sketches in the Dr Sketchy thread. He seems clinically insane, which means I have to meet him.

Bill: I know exactly the sketches you're talking about. Yes, my jaw drops every time he posts one.

Allana: Artists! Guh!

Bill: The thing is, I do enough writing and drawing to at least get where the ability to observe in that way comes from, and to think that maybe, if I could just concentrate on one pursuit long enough, I could approach a similar unique creativity... but still...

Allana: Yeah, precisely. It's the development of one trademark stylistic move that baffles me. I still find the temptation to write in multiple styles, and I just can't outweigh the benefits of being multiversed and adaptable to having that one really finely honed skill.

Bill: And in the realm of music I'm just lost. I can be transported -- I've had what I'd define as out-of-body experiences listening to music, triggered by a certin sound happening at a certain time, and am left in awe, you know? How do they know to put the sounds together that way? How can they feel it? That's a realm of art I stand in abject terror of!

Allana: It's still nice, in the midst of this whole exclusive-subjective-experiences thing the western world is going through, to think that people are so easily united by one powerful artistic experience. Even if we get sick of it a week later. I want to get over that weakness, the art-unites-us-all ideal. But it's hard.

Bill: It's probably fundamentally true. It's coming out of the under-conscious, from weird brainmeat we probably all share.

Allana: So when do we start telling people this is a philosophy blog instead of a literary criticism blog? I guess when we start saying new and controversial things.

Bill: Ha! Yes. If we keep trying, we might get there. Next chat we'll have to start off on non-fiction reading experiences, and see where that takes us.

Allana: That one'll be rough, for me. But I'm willing to give it a shot.

Typogram II Transmission Finis

Typogram II.II - I Can Like Mediocre Music if the Lyrics Are Good

Bill: I actually have a question for you.

Allana: Hit me.

Bill: You mentioned before we started this that you generally like to read fiction as a self-contained experience, without external research, etc. But clearly this book requires quite a bit of knowledge about the actual period to fully grasp what is going on, and this information is not all contained in the text. What is your take on the experience?

Allana: That I'm at a clear disadvantage. And that having someone around to keep me on my toes (that's you!) is essential to the book ever being read at all. It's completely changed the reason for the behaviour. It's entirely the game of hunting down obscure references, the excuse to wander aimlessly through Wikipedia links, the feeling of needing to be prepared for our chats.

To be honest, this iteration left me cold, stylistically. I feel like the story is empty in and of itself -- if this is really just a detective caper with some slick characters and a few sporting events, I would never have wasted my time. And I don't enjoy the dialogue, and I really would've given the book back to the library by now, after the overuse of the word "utter." I'm not joking; it really turned me off. So, I don't know.

It's important to note that if I had zipped through this book without pacing myself, I might've at least shrugged and said, "It's okay." If you wanted me to review it as a casual reader, I don't know what I would've said.

Bill: When I was reading science fiction after I moved to California -- really just diving into it, one book after another -- even then it was partly as springboards to discovering other avenues of knowledge. The books were never a self-contained experience for me -- and part of what I loved about them was the outside things they pointed me to. So I think I've always used books in this genre to generate ideas and find interesting things to follow outside their pages. Books about colonizing Mars led me to learn a lot about actual Mars. Heinleinian superpeople led me to read up on lots of areas of human mental and physical enhancement. Asimov's Foundation books led me to learn a bit about statistical analysis, oddly. Fantasy books used to be more or less self-contained experiences to me, though even those got me interested in sort of comparative mythology, and I had to stop reading them after it became clear how shallowly many of them were built on the same few mythological tropes.

Bill: All of this is not to say that the self-contained experience route is not legitimate; I just want to find out if this is nudging you at all into the camp of enjoying fiction as a springboard, more than as a microcosm. Does that make sense?

Allana: It does, and it isn't. Fiction is never really that interesting to me past the style in which it's written, the subjects it treats or mistreats. Sure, I reference stories in conversations -- but only if I'm already having a conversation about gender-switching, or artificial humans, or alternative planets, or whatever. Most of the time, whether it's visual art or music or film, I treat the medium within its own borders, you know? When I see amazing art (and I'll get you a link in a minute) I think about how much I wish I could replicate it, or get jealous about not thinking of it first.

I have been thinking, since I started reading Don DeLillo, about how often he includes subjects I'm already familiar with - cultural studies departments, video art, body performance. I'm having the biggest difficulty reading Underworld, which uses a certain baseball as the same sort of plot-driver as the punch cards in The Difference Engine. And it's not that I don't like baseball, but I've not yet found a writer that can make sports exciting in fiction. But describing how people respond to art installations? Always compelling.

Anyway, this brings us back to our chicken-and-egg conversation from last time.

Bill: How so? You mean, do transgressive people seek transgressive fiction, or does transgressive fiction make people transgress? That chicken and egg?

Allana: Yes, those precise creatures. Do I find myself looking kindly upon DeLillo's style because he treats topics I enjoy, or is his style already appealing in its own right?

Bill: Oh, okay, I see what you mean. I don't know -- style, to me, is like music. The content is like lyrics. When I like a song, it's usually for the lyrics. Great music enhances the experience, but I can like mediocre music if the lyrics are good. But bad lyrics spoil a song for me, even if the music is wonderful. And terrible music can spoil even a well-written song. I know people who are the opposite, who listen to songs for the musical experience, and hardly even think about the lyrics.

Allana: An excellent analogy, because I'm the exact reverse.

Bill: Ha!

Allana: The majority of the time, I like my music without lyrics, but even the worst lyrics are tolerable if the music is good enough. I just had a fit because I generally dislike female vocals, but the new Four Tet album seems designed to make me eat my words. Even with simple samples.

Typogram II.I - I Often Mistake "Power" and "Money" and "Knowledge" for Separate Goals

Bill: At this juncture, I am prepared for typogram transmission.

Allana: Kick it.

Bill: Have you thumbed ahead and seen the size of Iteration 3? It's half the book at once!

Allana: I had no idea. Sounds like fun, though. I still feel like this iteration wasn't much to chew on, so maybe we can make this chat a bit shorter than the last one, and save up our speculation for the next typogram. I dunno, I'm not used to having so many questions, yet denying my own abilities to answer them.

Bill: Let's list questions. You start!

Allana: Are you sure the punch cards are two different sets?

Bill: Not anymore.

Allana: Mick mentions the Napoleon in the first iteration, and in this one they are apparently of French design. Same box, same "tiny brass hooks," same milky substance. Same mauve ink.

Bill: I think there are two sets, as Mick clearly had the originals copied, but I don't think Mallory has the originals. He either has yet another copy, or somehow the copy put into the post for France by Sybil has been snatched from the postal system. Sybil does mail them. But Ada Byron seems to have the same box afterward.

Allana: Can you give me a page reference for where Mick says these have been copied? I couldn't find anything in the passage where he shows them to Sybil; is it earlier, when he's under the stage in the theatre?

Bill: Page 29, near the top.

Allana: Ahh. He says "the original." Gotcha. So we maybe haven't seen the originals in action yet. Although, living in the times we do, there's no reason to think that the clackers themselves wouldn't have kept copies as well.

This image of punch cards from Marcin Wichary's photostream.

Bill: You are right in noticing the description of the box: it's the same box as Mick Radley had, so the cards Edward Mallory took from Ada are the same cards we saw earlier. I guess we have still to learn how Rudwick was done in, so maybe we also have to learn how they got that box out of the post.

Allana: Yeah. Obviously Rudwick knew and mistrusted this Collins guy.

I really like your inference of "Oil!" in your comments on my section summary. I keep thinking "Science, science!" -- that these people are paleontologists first and money-grubbers second. They're still in a very dictatorial society, one where most funding comes from the government and most results of that funding gets put back in governmental hands. It's a lot different from the R&D departments of major private companies that make all the advancements today.

Your point in your summary, about the technology jumping farther forward than anyone could anticipate -- it's hard to figure how that knowledge will disseminate to smaller, more daily use if the government controls all its secrets. Information certainly can't move past international borders in this scenario. But that oil thing makes me wonder, if maybe steam technology is already on its way out, that it would have proven to be just a stepping stone to a petroleum-based society, earlier on -- and more devastating in its effects, if society is already used to machines everywhere.

Bill: Also, I think the British government is playing something like the "Great Game" in the Americas in this book. In real history, the Empire alternately supported and funded attacks on various kingdoms and powers in the Middle East, in order to keep anyone with ambition both beholden to Britain and unable to rise above a certain level. In this book they're doing that with the USA, CSA, and the Texian and Californian Republics. I think this was mentioned in the First Iteration. From page 32: "- they all take a turn in British favor, until they get to bold, and then they get taken down a peg." So those Government Exploration and Scientific Societies are likely involved in power politics on the American continent as well.

Allana: Yeah, I often mistake "power" and "money" and "knowledge" for separate goals, when they're really all just variations on the same theme. But you do have to wonder whether these early North American settlements are still very imperial in their respective societies, or if they've already taken a turn towards a more free-market system. It doesn't seem so, from what evidence we've gotten.

Bill: I don't think there's been any real detail on the politics or economy of the Americas, other than Sam Houston's desire to reinstate himself as President of Texas. I think we can assume that things are pretty much what they were in America at the point just following the Civil War, with the exception being that the Conferderacy succeeded in secceding, and is an agrarian, slave owning democracy. It's an assumption, though.

A Very Elegant Lesson

The sky had become a bowl of smoke, roiling and thickening. The untoward sight seemed to panic the London starlings, for a great flock of the little birds had risen over the park. Mallory watched in admiration as he walked. Flocking activity was a very elegant lesson in dynamical physics. Quite extraordinary how the systematic interaction of so many little birds could form vast elegant shapes in the air: a trapezoid, then a lopped-off pyramid, becoming a flattened crescent, then bowing up in the center like the movement of a tidal surge. There was likely a good paper in the phenomenon.

This was of course the insight that gave birth to the contemporary field of Artificial Life and has influenced thinking in Artificial Intelligence. It is famously the inspiration of Craig Reynolds' simulation: boids.

The boids essentially follow three simple rules:

1) Move toward the perceived center of the flock.

2) Match speed with the closest boids.

3) Avoid collisions.

The simulated flocking behavior observed was so similar to actual observed flocking in real birds that it has since become a matter of general understanding that real birds flock under evolved instincts that approximate rules like these.

This discovery, in our world, occured in the early 1980s as the computer graphics field advanced to the point of being able to code such a visual simulation. In the world of The Difference Engine, we've already seen Kinotrope shows that are probably complex enough to do this. We've also seen that Mallory has used Engine analysis to simulate the stress-bearing properties of the Brontosaurus skeleton, saving him from the error of assumption that was made in our actual history, in which that animal was misconstructed as an amphibious pond-grazer. It seems like they are just a small step away from running a starling simulation, and discovering the basis of artificial life.

Half the fun of reading this book for me is seeing contemporary computer science backdated onto Victorian models. It really drives home how much of this knowledge is simply physically manifested mathematics, and that the physical medium (in our case silicon and electricity, in their case brass gears and steamcranks) is beside the point, mostly.

The tools were never the revolution, however much we've fetishized them.

(Also, and I know this observation is trite, but how amazing is online video? Instead of struggling to describe something as strange as a murmuration of starlings, I can just show it to you. If you've never seen it before, now you have. Visual sensation has been utterly* democratized.)

*This is Allana's favorite word.

Sensorium Vitae - Some Fierce Deep-Buried Chemistry

Tube Mosaic at Maida Vale
This picture of the Tube Mosaic at Maida Vale linked to from Oxyman's Wikimedia Commons donated photo; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

There are passages in this book that are compelling simply for a skillfully evoked imagery or physical sensation. I'm going to bring some of those up in posts titled Sensorium Vitae.

In this one, Edward Mallory is on foot in London, headed to the Museum of Practical Geology:

He strode up Regent Street to the Circus, where the crowd poured endlessly forth from the underground's sooty marble exits. He allowed himself to be swept into swift currents of humanity.

There was a potent stench here, a cloacal reek, like burning vinegar, and for a moment Mallory imagined that this miasma emanated from the crowd itself, from the flapping crannies of their coats and shoes. It had a subterranean intensity, some fierce deep-buried chemistry of hot cinders and septic drippings, and now he realized that it must be pistoned out somehow, forced from the hot bowels of London by the charging trains below.

This played in my head like a moment of film, soundtrack ominous, Mallory walking the city amid the noise of traffic and people when suddenly all sound cuts, except the minimal looming music, as a crowd of long coated Victorians ascend from the underground stairs, a milky, vile mist billowing out from under their coattails and around their ankles. It crawls down there on the cobbles as though it might entangle their steps and drag them back down. Mallory's head turns with a growing morbid curiosity as he passes them, and all is in overcranked slow motion. With a slam, the full sound returns and the film speeds back up to the pace of life. The howl of an underground train coincides with a blast of air which disperses the mist at their feet. No one seems to feel the oddness except Mallory, who shakes his head to clear it and moves on.

Though a commonplace moment in passing, this passage is science fiction as we're in the year 1855, and in reality the London Underground hasn't been built yet. So, apparently the early revolution in Information Technology has accelerated the development of urban mass transit as well.

The Queen of Engines - The Second Iteration

zach with kinetic steam works' case traction engine hortense - burning man 2007
Photo © Tristan Savatier - http://loupiote.com/ - Used by Permission.

Ok, Second Iteration, much shorter than the first, but also possibly denser. Revelations of plot points in this post below may despoil you...

First off - I'm still not sure about these "Iterations" actually iterating anything. I don't see this brief chapter as a re-instantiation of the first chapter. If I were to try to make that notion work, I'd see the pattern as this:

1) Focal character is drawn by secondary character into a position of serious risk (Sybil joins Mick in his scheme to aid Sam Houston's ambition, Edward Mallory joins Michael Godwin's gamble on the speed of his steam-powered racer).

2) As a result of this risk-taking, the focal character has an encounter with the mysterious Engine Cards.

3) Blood is drawn.

4) Focal characters end up both victorious in their initial gamble (Sybil escapes her old life and obtains a new identity on a new continent, Edward Mallory's wager pays big, and he becomes an instantly wealthy man), and at the same time implicated in dangerous political affairs beyond their full comprehension.

That's as much of an iteration here that I can figure at this point.

Royal Cornwall Show
This picture of a steam engine linked to from Ennor's Flickr photostream; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

The photographic vignetting of this Iteration isn't as effective as it was in the first. We start with a picture of Mallory entering the Derby and end with a formal family portrait of the Ladies Byron and Somerville. No immediate context is suggested for these photos, where in the first Iteration it seemed to me the photos were surveillance images caught by agents or devices with specific implications. Where in the First Iteration these vignettes intrigued, in the second they just seem like a flat narrative framing device. We'll see how they play out going forward.

Allana gave a good overview of the characters we meet this time, so I won't go into that much myself, other than to mention that we do indeed meet Ada Byron, and she does seem to be either chemically influenced or deranged. In the photo vignette at the end of the Iteration she is said to be 40, which is how old she would have been in 1855 had she lived to that year. In unusual circumstances (maybe not so unusual for her, as she is here depicted) she hands off the case of mysterious Engine Cards to Edward Mallory and disappears. There is definitely more to write about the Lady Byron, but we'll do that later. What's interesting me right now is those cards.

Steam Engine on St. James's Street
This picture of a Steam Engine linked to from Dominic's pics' Flickr photostream; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

I'm trying to figure out the sequence of events surrounding the cards. I think there are two copies now, unless I'm misconstruing something.

We know this episode comes chronologically after the first, as the unpleasant Professor Rudwick is alive in the first episode and dead in the second. We are told in the First Episode that Mick somehow got temporary possession of the original set of cards. He took them to Manchester, which seems like it must be the Victorian English version of Palo Alto. He gets expert clackers in Manchester to use state-of-the-art compression algorithms to condense the data on the card set, and has a compressed copy of the whole set made on Napoleon gauge cellulose. We can assume he returned the originals to whoever he got hold of them from. Perhaps Collins the odds-maker, who Mick denies having met, and who I suspect, as Allana does below, is the same knife wielding tout that Edward Mallory pummels in the Second Iteration.

Therefore, the box of cards that Mallory comes into possession of must be the originals on English Gauge card-stock, digitally uncompressed. The box that Mick had Sybil mail to Paris contained a digitally compressed copy on French Gauge cards. There are, at this time, two versions of the mystery at large.

I also like the implication of separate gauges of cards. I'm guessing the Napoleon gauge is metric, based on centimeters, and probably developed by Vaucanson. The English gauge is probably Royal, based on inches and developed by Babbage. If there is open trade in digital recordings internationally at some point, they'll have the first format war!

Steam Cooker
This picture of a steam engine venting linked to from Metrix X's Flickr photostream; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

In the First Iteration the big science fictional device was the kinotrope. In the Second Iteration it is the steam powered racing vehicle. The action revolves around Michael Godwin's racing of his "line-streamed", "pneumo-dynamic" steam gurney, built under the auspices of the Brotherhood of Vapour Mechanics. His fragile, piscene contraption looks absurd next to the monstrous boiler platforms it contends with.

The description of the race itself perfectly captures the way genuinely effective innovation blindsides the world. When nobody sees it coming, there is a thin line between admiration and outrage. It feels as though someone has cheated, even when objective reality has rendered an inarguably impartial decision.

I think this breakthrough in functional automotive styling is meant to illustrate the shocking leap that has occurred in human capability when both industrial (steam) and information (pneumo-dynamic mathematics, enabled by the Difference Engine) revolutions coincide. Rather than arithmetic mechanical gradualism grinding with predictable brute force through several decades, we have a logarithmic discontinuity, so perfectly described:

Henry Chesterton stepped from the Zephyr. He tossed back a neck scarf, leaned at his ease against the shining hull of his craft, and watched with cool insolence as the other gurneys labored painfully across the finish line. By the time they arrived, they seemed to have aged centuries. They were, Mallory realized, relics.

Trevithick's Puffing Devil Z16573
This picture of Trevithick's Puffing Devil linked to from Ennor's Flickr photostream; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

Iteration the Second - Derby Day.

To avoid this being a research info-dump, it'll have to be short and sweet. To be honest, there wasn't much in this chapter to sink my teeth into -- instead of a well-flushed-out storyline it seemed a teasing introductory. Disappointing, after the first rollicking iteration. Being the grammarian that I am, I really had to grit my teeth after the eighth use of the word "utter" within a two-page spread. And a solitary knifefight, too, with no fatalities. Sigh.

This chapter was almost entirely proper-name research for me - the first thing I did was check out Epsom. The Epsom Downs Racecourse, or its current location, is outside of Epsom proper, and probably equidistant to Leatherhead, from which our new protagonist, Ned Mallory, walked. Seems like a nice enough place for an afternoon -- but I'm not going to bother digging around too much, as I suspect I'll mostly turn up pictures of women with oversized hats and a bunch of pseudo-historical racing fanaticism that will make my eyes glaze over. Still, nice to get my bearings. (If you're a racing fan, feel free to berate me in the comments.)

Epsom Downs in 1877. (Source.)

Every time the authors make a specific stylistic reference my detective ears perk up. The gutta-percha our knife wielder's weapon was made with is a fairly familiar material in the 1800s, used not only to insulate telegraph wire but also furniture, jewelry and, obviously, weapon handles. And hey, what's a huckle-buff? Mallory tries in vain to order this drink from a concession stand on the racetrack grounds. The best source I've got is here: "Huckle and Buff, also called huckle-my-buff and huckle-my-butt, was a hot drink made with beer, egg and brandy. The term is mentioned in many manuscripts from the early 18th century." Of course the same page lists it as "Gin and Ale" -- so, which is it, brandy or gin? And nobody here mentions barley-water, which the barkeep at Epsom Downs seems to think is a prerequisite, at least for a version of a huckle-buff fit for a Surrey native. This one will require more offline research to sort out. And maybe some bar experimentation. For science.

The person I want to find out more about is this Professor Rudwick -- he had a short appearance in the first iteration, and his character is debated shortly here, albeit with use of the term "late." I take it we're still in 1855, and Rudwick has managed to expire between his meeting with Mick Radley in London and this Derby Day. Did I miss something in the first iteration? Was he somehow targeted by the Angel of Goliad? His conversation with Radley implied a meeting that must not have been kept (as Houston was too dead to attend), and an ongoing assocation with Babbage regarding "pneumo-dynamics," the principles of which have informed the technology behind the Zephyr's stunning win at the Derby.
Rudwick's apparent claim to fame is the discovery of Quetzalcoatlus, a prehistoric specimen found, in reality, in the 1970s, in Texas. One would assume that the advent of steam machinery would have made paleontological excavation a tad easier in the new world. A minor topic, but a good excuse for a picture.

Fanciful image of Quetzalcoatlus from jconway's deviantart.

I like the touches of occult mystery attached to the figure of Ada -- her (possibly drug-induced) absent-mindedness, the shadowy Society of Light, and the closing lines: "Ada is the mother. Her thoughts are closed." Her earlier speech is robotic, as though the words "Royal Society" triggered a subroutine within her -- she speaks like a museum machine that's been fed a coin. Her mention of "elaborate and scientific pieces of music" gets me most excited. I'm hoping for entire pages of speech of this sort in the future. I might plan an entire music/math/autism/drugs/logic post for later.

The majority of the chapter, though, was suspenseful stuff: Was Ada's companion and attempted captor the Collins person Rudwick mentioned in the first iteration? Is the glass vial his red-haired companion wielded going to appear later? I have the feeling Rudwick's death might go unexplained. This is the risk of reading things too thoroughly: Expectation... leads to disappointment. If you don't expect something big, huge, and exciting, it usually, um, I don't know, it's just not as... yeah.

Typogram I.IV - Products of a Card-Programmed Inhuman Loom

Allana: To segue awkwardly back into this book we're supposed to be discussing, things aren't really very risque yet. Not that either of these authors are known for their gratuity.

Bill: I think a big part of the transgressive draw of cyberpunk as a genre was the notion of blending your organic body with a machine... I kind of alternate between superpower fantasy and deathwish, where you sort of willingly surrender your meat to the meatless future of thought that you are building. I'm not sure if there is equivalent transgression to be found in the steam-driven tech in this book. Though there was that bit in the beginning... let me quote... "These hands consist of tendons, tissue, jointed bone. Through quiet processes of time and information, threads within the human cells have woven themselves into a woman." This comes right along with the reference to the Jaquard loom cloth. I get the sense that what is being suggested is a mechanizing of the concept of life itself, at this early era... that human beings are seen as the products of a card-programmed inhuman loom.

This picture of an automaton linked to from sethgoldstein's Flickr photostream.

Allana: I did a presentation in a philosophy class once about the precursors to the cognitive science movement; people who referred to bodies as machines that could be explained and predicted. We called them the non-self theories, the idea that the human thought process and existence doesn't rely on a soul or any mysterious ephemeral substance. De La Mettrie, who I think was writing in the 1700s, wrote a book called Man A Machine - although his arguments were more like "You know how men who eat lots of red meat seem angry and loud all the time? And you know how people who drink a lot sometimes sound drunk even when they're sober?" But, still, he was the first to come right out and say it, which was pretty outrageous in non-secular society. Hume got nailed for it, too; there's a small passage in A Treatise of Human Nature which goes something like "I can never capture that thing within me that could exist past my own thought; I try to get to the basis of my ideas but it's not something that can be grasped, past the feed of my senses being mixed with my memories." I'm not really going anywhere with this, though; it's more of an info-dump. And a naive hope that somewhere in this story we meet some Man-A-Machine fanatics that hold up placards and shout slogans about how people should embrace their computer-ness.

Bill: It's been a theme in science fiction pretty strongly played since Neuromancer... there's an understanding in neuropsychology currently that consciousness itself isn't actually in charge, that your brain is a machine for reacting to stimuli and your conscious awareness is only an observer of those reactions that then quickly confabulates excuses for why you wanted to do what you did... but those excuses come after the action, even though we fool ourselves into believing we made deliberate choices based on those reasons. That you are just a passenger in yourself, with no access to the steering wheel. Books by Peter Watts hit this idea pretty hard. You could point to Darwin, who is also name dropped in the Difference Engine as one of the "Rad Lords", as the big-bang moment of this thread of understanding being introduced in the loom of modern knowledge. I guess the only thing the book itself suggest so far is that this line of thought might be much earlier adopted by those in power if the advent of computing were pushed back to the Victorian era. I'm not sure if there have been any radically strong stances taken in the book yet.

Allana: Not yet, but we can hope.

Bill: Maybe seeds planted for something more radical to come.

Allana: Fingers crossed! And more death scenes too plz.

Bill: You should write a book that is all death scenes.

Allana: Uh, Roberto Bolano did; it's called 2666.

Bill: Ha! Haven't read 2666 yet, but it's on the shelf behind me.

Allana: It's just the third part that's brutal; the rest is pretty good.

Bill: Are we calling the chat closed now?

Allana: I think that would be prudent.

Bill: Thanks for chatting - catch you again soon!

Allana: Awesome. Doctor Who time.

Typogram I Transmission Finis

Typogram I.III - Watching Someone Hang From Hooks is Different From Doing It Yourself

Bill: There's the implication sometimes (Warren Ellis used this in Ministry of Space), that the advent of high technology freezes culture in the state it was in when the technology boomed... so his British Space Empire freezes ethics in a racist/classist early-20th-century frame in that book. I can't tell yet if Gibson & Sterling are going for that kind of thing in this book - I don't think we're far enough into the "future" from a steam-era perspective to tell if they are saying anything about how steam-era computation might have affected the cultural landscape that followed.

Allana: You're right; I was expecting (as I mentioned in, I think, one of my Known Issues things) to see a lot more of how people live with technology in daily life. Mostly it's just been half-hearted "oh, those newfangled thingadooders" reactions so far. But, only the first part, so I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Allana: Oh, speaking of Heinlein! I just "read" The Windup Girl, which I know you're working on right now. To be honest, I wasn't really happy with the first few chapters, so I sort of skimmed. And then told someone, "If you want to read The Windup Girl, just read Friday by Robert Heinlein." I like that one of the strongest themes in sci-fi is "people reacting negatively to new technology," even though most sci-fi authors are the types that dream endlessly about new machines to play with. The Windup Girl and Friday both play with the artificial-human-beings theme, giving their not-quite-human protagonists heart and, most importantly, regret and shame about their states of being. Yet the people who make and use those technologies never seem to have any fear or worry.

Bill: Friday is an interesting book to bring up, as one of the technologies that exists in that book is a very comprehensive surgical and health maintenance capability, so the main character, a spy, is in one scene horribly raped and disfigured, but her attitude toward it is to engage in the sex and keep her attackers off balance, as she knows as long as she can stay alive and escape, everything can be repaired physically as though it never happened. It is a profoundly disturbing episode, but it pushes the what-if pretty strongly... what if you could erase all evidence of any physical damage? Could you then bend your mind to better endure the psychological trauma, as you'd know all along that the permanent physical effects were nothing to worry about?

Allana: As opposed to the Windup Girl, who seems to just have enough mind-control training to believe that she deserves her torment. I admit that Friday is probably in my top three books, ever. And I've read it so many times now, the first being when I was probably 15, that what was probably shocking once is now comforting.

Bill: Heinlein was probably one of the more audacious science fiction writers who ever wrote. Especially considering he was writing in the 1950s and 1960s. He really seemed to be able to cross taboo lines at will.

Allana: And it's funny that I don't find the rest of his stuff so compelling. Again with the rough'n'tough female character I can identify with, I guess. And I should probably mention that I willingly volunteer for what many people would assume to be fairly "disturbing" physical injuries.

Bill: Ha! But piercings and body-mods are fairly commonplace now. Still a subculture, and still looked on with surprise by most, but not the circus sideshow horrors that they were once considered.

Allana: Yeah, but watching someone hang from hooks is different from doing it yourself.

hangin' around
This picture of the shadow of a man in suspension linked to from macwagen's Flickr photostream.

Allana: My point is that I somehow found a disposition for the latter, and whether books like Friday correlated or caused it is up for discussion.

Bill: Do you gravitate toward these characters in fiction because of your disposition, or does exposures to these charaters create your disposition? I usually suspect the former over the latter. I don't think fiction changes people, I think it reflects them.

Allana: It is a good question, and one I should table-turn on you. Why the interest in sci-fi, Bill? I just blame my dad. And how do you, as what I assume to be a slightly less self-injurious type, feel when you encounter those scenes? I think most sci-fi fans, when they read about people with what we consider to be superhuman abilities, just wish to be them. And people that get turned off by hearing about encounters where those powers would be necessary just avoid the genre as a whole in the first place. Which makes the whole discussion pretty lopsided. You must be weird and slightly reckless and/or self-destructive in order to want to read these sorts of books at all.

Bill: Yeah, I think the people who read science fiction, especially uncomfortable taboo crossing science fiction as opposed to vanilla space adventures, are the sort who self select for casualness with things like body mods or sometimes risky entertainments.

Allana: ... (This is the part where you relate a little-known and possibly embarrassing secret about yourself, thus ending any future political aspirations.)

Bill: All my current flirting with taboo happens in my head. When I was younger I read mostly fantasy. Tolkein and his degenerate literary heirs. It wasn't until I moved west after college that I really dove into science fiction, and then it was the really hard stuff. Real physics and plausible biology. Logically consistent futures extrapolated out of something I saw in the actual world. Everything I was experiencing at the time was new and kind of amazing in my real life. I had just come through a cross-country trip that wrecked a couple of friendships, and I was as far away from home as I'd ever been. San Diego and Los Angeles are like science fiction when you grew up in a town like the one I grew up in. In the course of that adventure I had my only encounter with mushrooms, which for me at least was not a good trip. I don't want to give that too much emphasis; I was quite imaginatively engaged in the world my whole life. The mushroom experience was just the first time I felt I didn't have control of my own mind, though. You know? If chemicals could do that, then what is your mind? A chemical engine? I think I became a lot more directly interested in the role a brain plays in the experience of self-perception than I had been before that. That was just another seed of interest that found flower in hard science fiction. Fundamentally, though, I think it comes from a desire to just see what comes next. I can't imagine ever being bored. If you could keep me alive a thousand years with my head in a Futurama jar I'd sign up for that, just to know what happens next. I used to tell people if NASA was looking for volunteers to go to Mars, but couldn't bring us back, I'd still go. These days I think I like trees and oxygen too much to permanently give them up, but I still feel the immoliative romance of that adventure. The First Corpse on Mars wouldn't be a bad end. And that's why the interest in sci-fi.

Allana: I guess that's fair enough. And ditto on wanting to be alive for a thousand years!

Bill: I'm sure I'm supressing some colorful memories.

To be concluded in Typogram I.IV - Products of a Card-Programmed Inhuman Loom

Typogram I.II - Future Ethical Transgressions

Allana: I also want to do a historical exploration of Whitechapel, the place, because I know almost nothing about England or London and really need to get my bearings. The descriptions of the neighbourhoods and streets aren't so rich that I feel lost without it, but it's worth checking out regardless.

Bill: I can recommend reading the notes at the end of Alan Moore's From Hell - and actually his whole book... it all takes place there and you get a really great feel for place. I'm not sure how much more of our current book is going to be set there.

Allana: Good point. Too bad I know nothing of Paris, either. It's funny that the period language (or, what period language the modern writers could scrape together) isn't bothering me nearly as much as it usually does. The reason I can read sci-fi but not fantasy is usually that fantasy keeps up this stilted, feudal-era brogue that I just can't get down with. Even with "snicky humbugging" and the like, I was able to keep my composure. Though I did hiccup at the words "flash mob," because of the contemporary use. The thought of a real flashmob popping up in a town square in 1855 took me a minute to get over. I can't ever imagine Victorian English types having that much fun, for any reason. I wonder if the writers themselves had a snicker when the flashmob concept came about.

Bill: I don't think the concept of a flashmob as we currently know it had been coined even at the time of this book's publication! I think at the time I first read this, knowing both of these authors as cyberpunk authors, the slang came off as clumsy attempts to do cyberpunkish neologisms in a period context. Now it's just reading more like period slang, which is a bit more natural.

Allana: Yeah, that was probably my big stumbling block, too. Young as I was and entrance by Gibson's fancy futures, dreaming myself as a dextrous young hacker saving the world - this book was a pretty big disappointment back in the day. But I do feel bad for blaming Bruce Sterling. What can I say? I was a stupid kid.

Bill: I think victorians were probably as publicly rowdy as anyone...

Chartist Riot
This picture of a Victorian Flashmob linked to from the Wikimedia Commons.

Bill: The interesting thing to remember is that elaborate social rules and restrictions tend to come about in reaction to the ubiquity of the bad behavior being restricted. No need to even invent rules if the society is generally well behaved. So any era, such as the victorians, that leaves behind a written legacy of elaborate, detailed rules of propriety is probably one in which those rules were routinely broken at the time. I suspect there was quite a bit of raucus public fun in the streets of London.

Allana: Maybe. It's hard to keep track of the class differences. If we stick with the flashmobbing example, it's typically a white middle-class urban pursuit: people with cellphones and free time. Public rowdiness back in the day seems more a lower-class, gin-addict sort of thing. Or at least, things back then seem more like serious political concerns, while we're pretty much all about having fun here in the privileged western world. Again, I'm almost useless when it comes to history and politics, but didn't the Industrial Revolution have a huge part to play in making the middle class we now belong to? In Victorian times, the pen-holders were of the strict upper-class (as Sybil herself refers to when she splits her two lives into Jones and Gerard), so of course we hear about primness and propriety.

Bill: That's probably right... but there was quite a thriving practice, at least among upper class men, of slumming for fun. Charles Dickens used to do it quite a bit himself... it was easy for an established male to cross social boundaries downward temporarily to engage in disapproved behavior, and still return to his regular station. Probably not as easy for women... though I did se an article recently that suggested Victorian women had quite a bit more naughty fun than has generally been suspected.

Allana: It's on BoingBoing, and I've seen it as well. But I'm not sure it really implied that much fun. Mostly just that women, after marriage, were a lot less shy about sexual acts. And those studies were conducted in an almost entirely academic and upper-class demographic. I don't really think that men seeing prostitutes or indulging in drugs and fighting is such a big deal. I tend to compare it to Greek men taking beautiful young boys when and how they wanted, and then retreating calmly to their homes and wives. But I swear I'm not trying to win any points for the feminist oh-poor-women-so-deprived argument. It just seems to be the way things have been, more often than not, in many cultures.

Bill: You're right with regard to industrialization largely creating what we think of as the modern middle class - thought that process began with international trade much earlier in the middle ages... men who traded goods accumulated great wealth outside of the medieval system of nobility, so they started to wield political and social power far out of proportion to their station.

Allana: It's funny to read dystopian predictions of the future where things we find shocking now are still supposed to be shocking later. In Transmetropolitan, when Spider tries to oust politicians for having sex with little boys or drugged-out half-humans, I always wondered "Yeah, but why would the people on the streets really care?"

Bill: Yes, I always think dystopian fiction tends to fall down when imagining future ethical transgressions... Robert Heinlein used to write in things like incest as almost matter of factly acceptable in some of his future societies... he was often trying to push boundaries of acceptability for the very reason you cite - that mores often change as dramatically as technology... but I think many people shy from that for fear of not being able to sell books!

Allana: True enough.

To be continued in Typogram I.III - Watching Someone Hang From Hooks is Different From Doing It Yourself