Fail again. Fail better.

I'm the sort that wants to read a book in a vacuum, straight through, without doing research or checking out reviews. I don't even like reading jackets or excerpts, because my brain too easily remembers those hints of plot points to come; I find having an idea of what's coming makes me more impatient with what's in front of me.

But I've been afraid of The Difference Engine for almost a decade, and my normal approach seems to be useless here. It was handed to me by my father, a sci-fi and western fan; I couldn't get past the first chapter. From what I remember, I was put off by the dialogue, and wasn't having an easy time figuring out the setting. I had read at least a few Gibsons by that time, definitely Virtual Light and Count Zero. But I had never heard of Bruce Sterling, and blamed him for the difficulty and obtuseness.

Now, a decade later, I've become less enchanted by Gibson's work; All Tomorrow's Parties and Spook Country were more like indulgences of nostalgia for me. While Sterling's fiction leaves me underwhelmed, I'm enamoured with his essays and ideas, especially his yearly "State Of The World" online discussions. And, while I don't find much appeal in steampunk culture past its colour palette and the occasional whimsical machine that actually functions, I have no issue with historical reimaginings as opposed to futuristic fantasies.

I am, however, giving myself a bit of leeway: I'm allowing myself all the virtual assistance I feel I require, from help with the historical references to interpretations from other readers. Of course, my esteemed colleague Bill will be here to assist/guide/berate me as needed (I only hope I can return the favour). If, God forbid, I still can't manage to claw my way through this book, I'll have nothing to blame but my own fool stubbornness.

It's important to note, I think, that Bill and I are both coming at this specific book from the same angle, though our reading histories and personal preferences are quite diverse. That either says something about The Difference Engine or about the people who read it. If it's as obtuse as it's famed to be, maybe our separate backgrounds will lead us off on unique paths of speculation. The only thing I fear in this exercise is that we'll both fail, again, and pronounce it a flop in unison. Still, at least we'd have an answer.

- Allana


  1. You mentioned Sterling's annual "State of the World" discussions on the Well - I think those alone are his major contribution to contemporary thought. They go back several years, and I kind of wish he'd collect them chronologically, edit them up and publish them as a book. I'm pretty sure he could do the whole decade from 2001 to 2010. In fact, the first one appears to have been done in 2000. It was more or less at the beginning of his Viridian design movement days.

    I suppose it might be a tedious exercise for him. Reliving the earlier drafts of thought.

    It's so tempting to just go through those discussions and copy them into a book for myself. Too bad they don't go back far enough to overlap The Difference Engine. Though maybe reading around some of his earlier Dead Media thinking might lend some insight to the book.

  2. I don't think he'd find it tedious: he seems like the type of guy that could just never settle down and reminisce long enough to publish his thoughts. More likely he'd be distracted by the first one and run off developing it more. I'm halfway through one of his lectures, which was typed up by "an unrepentant sympathizer." I think he'd need a whole entourage of transcribers and editors to catalogue and present his ideas, preferably made of his own clones.

  3. If you are looking for some meta-discussion of The Difference Engine by S&G, NPR's "All Things Considered" ran a short interview with them about the writing of the book at the time it came out.

    If you can't find it online, I might be able to find the cassette recording I'd made of it.

  4. Thanks Stefan! In looking for that NPR interview online, I came across a printed conversation with Sterling and Gibson called The Charisma Leak.

    It looks like it's in some kind of online reference collection. I'm going to see if I can get access to it a little later, it looks interesting.

    I actually can't find the interview you're describing online. The NPR archive doesn't seem to go back that far. If you could upload an mp3 of the recording you have, I'd certainly love to hear it!