The Queen of Engines - The Second Iteration

zach with kinetic steam works' case traction engine hortense - burning man 2007
Photo © Tristan Savatier - - 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

Typogram I.I - Why a Man Saved by Grace Could Still Be So Bloodthirsty

Bill: Ready?

Allana: I'll ever be.

Bill: Hello!

Allana: Hi!

Bill: Ok, so... how far have you got?

Allana: Exactly to the end of the First Iteration. It is much, much easier reading than I was predicting.

Bill: Perfect, I did the same. First thoughts?

Allana: I was pleased that a character I assumed they were going to make major ended up dead. Then again, I shouldn't've expected anyone to be "major," given what I know about these "unconnected, meandering" plotlines. I just like murder, really.

Wilson Bowies Knives
This catalog of Wilson Bowies Knives linked to from Trenton Rock's Flickr photostream.

Bill: It was a very well written murder. Brutal efficiency is always effective to read about. I love the way they turned the implications of "Angel" around in the character who is the Angel of Goliad in this book. Instead of a female angel of mercy, we get a male angel of death. I'm glad you looked that up before we read - knowing the story behind that name in the real world significantly added to my enjoyment of the episode... you get that added pleasure of realization when the darker reflection of history becomes clear.

Allana: That's funny; I was sort of upset that they didn't seem to be referencing the historical term. I was expecting that maybe the book's angel would make reference to being saved by the factual angel; they could've made some interesting moral argument about why a man saved by grace could still be so bloodthirsty.

Bill: Wow. That's good. I'm just going to imagine that is what happened now, but nobody in the book talked about it. That is already retroactively increasing my enjoyment of that episode.

Allana: At least they could've thrown in some sort of acknowledgement.

Bill: I think there is just sort of an assumption that you'll know.

Allana: ... If you have Google?

Bill: I think there'll be a lot of that kind of thing here, probably the reason it was such a muddle to me the first time I read it. So much just sailed over my head.

Allana: Yeah, that's true, which will be good to look forward to.

Bill: Like the references to Lady Ada Byron - that's Ada Lovelace, the first programmer...

Allana: I made a little list of all the things I mean to look up, which is where my post about the Jacquard loom came from. Ada Byron would've been next to tackle.

Bill: I'm doing some reading on her now, I want to flesh out a post, but now I feel some time pressure, as I suspect she'll become a focal character later on.

Allana: I tend to gravitate towards those female characters that do something characteristically male with their lives, so she'll be perfect if I need a ... totem, or something.

To be continued in Typogram I.II - Future Ethical Transgressions

Surreptitiously Daguerreotyped - The First Iteration

stieglitz snapshot paris
This daguerreotype street picture of Paris linked to from Jose Luis Caro's Flickr photostream.

This was much better than I remembered it!

I'm going to summarize plot below in the course of writing, so spoilers will abound. you have been cautioned as the dictates of conscience require.

Why call the sections iterations? Do they repeat patterns? Will each section somehow rise from the same conditions? Will the actions repeat themselves in disguise?

This first one is vignetted as Allana mentions below by surreptitious recordings capturing Sybil Gerard at two different moments in her life. We first see her in the novel's future, 1905, in Cherbourg, France (the port opposite England across the Channel) as an old woman. She's watching a trans-channel airship, escorted by small unmanned aeroplanes. It is one of these planes that has recorded her image. Optically encoded, we are told.

The end of the Iteration has a much younger Sybil Gerard in a daguerreotype taken by the Public Morals Section of the Sûreté Générale. Sam Houston is in this image, too, but blurred, we are told, an accidental subject. I think this suggests Sybil is the intentional subject. Who are the Sûreté Générale? The Encyclopedia Britannica says they were an organ of the French Revolutionary government that helped administer the Reign of Terror in the late 1700s. The Committee of General Security.

So, we start with an elderly Sybil, well established in France, but looking toward Britain. There is commerce between the nations, as evidenced by the airship, but there is also tension, suspicion, as evidenced by the surveillant escort. There are unmanned drone planes. There is high resolution optical encoding. There are many things odd about this 1905.

We end with a younger Sybil, on her advent in France, escaped from espionage, politics and murder back in London, in possession of diamonds and a forged identity, and the knowledge of some unique machine punch cards, taking tea in a Paris café. She seems to be the deliberate target of surveillance by the secret service arm of the French government. One suspects this interest must be sparked by something more substantial than her past as a fallen woman.

Are both instances of surveillance, 1855 and 1905, related? Does she remain a person of interest to spies and state powers from the moment she stepped onto the continent well into her final years? A person of interest, but also, somehow, influence, not to be trifled with but still to be spied on from afar? With surreptitious daguerreotypes and optically encoded enhanceable recordings from passing unmanned government aerodrones?

In the course of the first iteration we learn that Sybil is the fallen daughter of a hanged counter-revolutionary leader, who resisted the rise of an Engineered culture. She has long since ceased to be of any political importance, having been used and ruined in a romance with a nobleman named Charles Egremont, who has since become a Member of Parliament. She falls into the life of an escort, and in that life falls in with Dandy Mick Radley.

robert cornelius daguerreotype
This picture of Robert Cornelius is the earliest known Daguerreotype from America - I've put it here because this fellow looks like my mental image of Dandy Mick Radley.

Dandy Mick has aspirations, and is playing in powerful circles. He is scheming to fabricate popular support for the restoration of Sam Houston to the Presidency of the Republic of Texas, with the notion that he may then retire on Houston's patronage to an estate in Texas and an advance to a more genteel class. To get there, though, he has waded waist deep in dangerous politics. The kind of politics, as Allana mentions below, that lead to knife blade guttings and the close quarters discharge of small pistols.

Sam Houston
This picture of San Houston linked to from the Wikimedia Commons.

By the time Sybil emerges in Paris, having survived the ruin of Mick's enterprise, she has done several things that might have raised her importance in the eyes of state intelligence agencies:

1) She has stolen diamonds from Sam Houston's hollow walking stick and left him bleeding (but not, in the end, dead) on the floor of a hotel in London.

2) She has had her machine-encoded identity record altered to escape her past as a prostitute.

3) She has personally mailed to Paris a box of extraordinary Camphorated cellulose kino cards, which she knows, if they are run on a powerful Engine in Paris, will demonstrate something profound. Something which Mick believed would make his fortune.

4) She has telegraphed an ominous threat to the MP Charles Egremont, suggesting that he and his family might suffer for the betrayal he committed. This telegraph was sent from the lobby of the very hotel in which, a few minutes later, Sam Houston lay bleeding from a bullet that came from Dandy Mick's (her partner in adventure) gun. Dandy Mick as well lay dead from a knifing, and she, alone, escaped. A mysterious Texian assassin committed both atrocities, but escaped unseen. All that any investigating authorities would find would be items and circumstances that tie Mick and Sybil to the attack.

You can see why the government of France might be interested in finding out why she has appeared on the streets of Paris.

As an added layer of significance that I also didn't know about the last time I read this book, all these characters, Sybil Gerard and her father, Dandy Mick and Charles Egremont, all of them are characters from a victorian novel by Benjamin Disraeli called Sybil, or the Two Nations. That link goes to the Project Gutenberg page for the novel, you can get the whole text free online. The Difference Engine is essentially a sequel to the Disraeli novel, picking up with these characters where his novel left off. This is somehow incredibly delightful for me to know.

Finally, I wanted to find a good picture of a man riding a four-wheeled velocipede. Allana has decided this fellow is my cameo in the book, and I'll accept that, because that guy in his stripped jersey, his scarf and his goggles, tooling along the midnight asphalt of the steam powered capitol of the British Empire, strapped into a pedal contraption of his own design, is simply the height of insouciance in the novel so far. Sybil imagined him an inventor of some sort. I like to think he has continued to refine his velocipede, until, several years later, he is the confident master of this:

Stayer Tomy Hall (1) and his pacer Cissac
This picture of Stayer Tomy Hall (1) and his pacer Cissac linked to from letterlust's Flickr photostream.

There's a flash steam jockey if ever there lived, what?

Iteration The First.

I hope my section summaries in the future are more thematically organized than this - or, I hope one issue strikes me so fiercely that I can't help but rant about it exclusively. This first section (officially an "iteration") threw a number of small curveballs at me, so apologies that this post is a bit scattered. But I'll try to do that "literary criticism" thing I like to pretend I'm good at.

For an introductory passage, it's quite good; I'm always a fan of unexpected death. Beyond that, it has all the other requisite elements - plenty of sex and a bit of romance, a fugitive, an assassin, and some stolen riches. Rather than some exotic object with mystical properties, sought after by good and bad alike, we've got a set of missing punch cards ostensibly mailed to Paris, to be collected by hands unknown. I like the transposition here of a wish-granting lamp or diamond of eternal life with a painstakingly constructed computer program. When magic becomes science, science becomes magic (or so those steampunk LARPers would have you believe) - and this is actually a sentiment I can get behind. I love the new "aura" of fresh and baffling technology, because it comes with the knowledge that it's really human-made, thus conquerable, even if you can't shake the wonder of it all.

I have a handful of notes regarding things I want to research further. We've already held our online discussion of the chapter (to be posted soon), in which we talked about how little we're both educated in terms of Victorian class arrangements and rules. The few times the book does undertake to lecture us about these things, it does it subtly enough: "No respectable woman rode the underground unescorted," etc. But I hate the feeling that I get all my knowledge in this area from period books and movies. Mostly I want to get a big map of Whitechapel (and the settings I'm sure are coming in future iterations) and colour in different neighbourhoods, push in pins whenever a specific place is mentioned.

Then there's this Keats fellow, who is so interested in the pictorial abilities of the kinotrope. I confess to being intolerant of poetry, so I couldn't tell you if any of the topics of his conversation with our protagonist are of special indication to the real Keats. But he does, indeed, cough like someone afflicted with tuberculosis, and the mention of him once being in medical school is also verified. Essentially the only thing to conclude from this reference is that people concerned with sensuality and creating poignant fantasy (as Keats's poetry is characterized) might very well have become obsessed with fancy visualization methods - though the technicalities don't seem like his thing.

Another point I find interesting happens on the 57th page, when our doomed dandy Mick gets up in arms about his precious kinotrope program being "borrowed" in order to make copies. "But that's theft!" our heroine shrieks. Certainly a hot-button topic for Sterling and other technologically-minded cultural theorists (Cory Doctorow, for example, does a bit of historical comparison and makes a not-very-compelling case for why creative works must be shared) - but I like the specific implications here of "borrowing" things to copy them, instead of just instantaneous electronic replication. This implies a more serious affair, where copying is actually a time-consuming and laborious process that must be carried out by a specialist with professional skills and tools. To think that a famous painting must be taken out of public eye for months while a painter copies it, all for the purpose of being able to expose "it" to more audiences around the world, not only gets people up in arms about auras and authenticity but even causes controversy about unregulated public access. (Whereas, on the upside, at least it would create employment for semi-skilled artisans and technicians, as middlemen of culture.) The fact that we let computers do all the work now implies that we as a population are quite content with inferior quality (pixellated, off-colour Mona Lisas are still Mona Lisas, right?) and a mode of consumption unintended by the artist (liner notes? Who needs liner notes?). It's analogous to trusting Wikipedia for facts - it's not really "trust," but laziness and disregard. It would have been disrespectful and downright shameful in the past, but it has a new connotation now. I think what's important inb contemporary times is that no one controls the culture: no one claims a position of authority and decides who gets to see or hear what and how (and for how much). But it would take me a long time to assemble my arguments and anecdotes as to why everyone should create and no one should profit from it, so let's leave that for now.

The last thing I want to mention is the "vignetting" that people warned of; those tableaus, loosely framed in terms of photographic equipment, that come at the beginning and end of every iteration. It's not much of a stylistic emblem, at least not yet - maybe later iterations use it to greater effect (or it becomes clear that the government is spying on people using super-sophisticated technology in 1851 - what, too much?). It forms a neat bookmark, if you're paying attention, but, as it stands, it seems hardly worth mentioning.

I can't let this section roll past without a mention of the cameo of our friend Bill on page 49:

A daring fellow whisked past her, taking full advantage of the gritty new surface. Nearly recumbent within the creaking frame of a four-wheel velocipede, his shoes were strapped to whirling cranks and his breath puffed explosively into the cold. He was bare-headed and goggled, in a thick striped jersey, a long knit scarf flapping out behind him as he sped away. Sybil supposed him an inventor.
I think it could fit, don't you?

Kinotrope Clackers

Préhistoire de l'informatique
This picture of punch cards strung for machine feeding linked to from sunfox's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The First Iteration of the Difference Engine introduces my favorite steampunk fictional technology so far - the kinotrope!

The kinotrope is a large panel of little cubes with different colors on each facet, that can be mechanically spun to orient a specific color forward, making them physical pixels in a giant display.

The pixels are spun by steam powered crank machinery which is driven by a difference engine (which is, of course, the titular calculating machine. Difference Engines are not solely used to drive kinotropes, it is just one of their uses).

The Difference Engine reads a stack of punch cards in automated succession to map which pixels to spin at which time. As the cards are run through it, the pixels spin along in time.

It's just a cool device! I did some seraching to see if anyone ever tried to build something vaguely like this, and surprisingly, although it isn't powered by punch cards, someone has!:

Préhistoire de l'informatique
This picture of Daniel Rozin's Wooden Mirror linked to from faroekat's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I'm going to just quote the flickr caption for the above photo, as it explains how this device works quite clearly:

Daniel Rozin's Wooden Mirror is also an example of audiovisual pixels. As you put your hand/face etc. over the camera (within the 'canvas'), the input translated the angle of each individual wooden pixel to become such that it reflects the amount of light tone that corresponds to the input. Each wooden pixel is connected to a servo-motor - so noise levels are very high.

This uses a camera instead of punch cards and a modern computer instead of a Difference Engine, but the wooden pixel display is exactly what Gibson and Sterling are describing in their novel. The description above even notes that the noise level of this display in motion is high, which was also suggested by the name the novel gives to people who program punch cards for the kinotrope: clackers.

Another note I loved about the description of the art/profession of clacking is that figuring out compression algorithms for the punch cards is a highly valued skill. Presumably you could just have one hole to represent each possible orientation of each colored cube. That would mean the data on the cards would be completely uncompressed, but for a screen of any size it would take forever to run all those cards through and set the machine.

In the book Sam Houston's kinotrope presentation is described as very cleverly animated, requiring rapid and precision timed spinning of the pixel cubes. This is made possible as Mick Radley has obtained expertly algorithmically compressed punch cards which are very highly valued. So highly, in fact, that possession of them precipitates several terrible crimes...

The Jacquard Loom.

I feel like a bit of a crime dog, sniffing out the obscure cultural references. Not that this one was hard to find, sitting as it does on the very first page. And it's a pretty gratuitous mention, too - create an introductory tableau of an old woman on a balcony, and toss in a piece of fabric made by what was possibly the first industrial machine to run via pre-programming. A program on punch cards, no less! While the Jacquard loom has no feature in at least this first section of the book, it holds its own historical significance. Like, hey, maybe it was in on of the "revolution" part of the Industrial Revolution?

There are a few precursors to Joseph Marie Jacquard -- Bouchon, Falcon, and Vaucanson are the guys that created, respectively, a loom pattern using perforated paper, the first punch card mechanism, and a loom that would run automatically. As far as I can tell, Jacquard just rolled all those inventions into one magical machine: suddenly all the thinking (I think they call it craftsmanship) was gone from the "art" of weaving; the only human intervention required was the manpower of stepping on the treadle, and the occasional reloading of thread and program. This timeline spans from Bouchon's invention in 1725 to Jacquard's industrialization in 1801. According to one source, people rioted against the introduction of Falcon's punch-card looms -- you know how we have slick guild and union systems set up to console people with nice pensions when they get labelled as redundancies? I take it they didn't have those back in the day.

Anyways, it might make you feel better to know that when Jacquard introduced his loom to the French government, they liked it so much they declared it public property, essentially stealing his work, too. Really, I don't know why machines get the worst rep in this society.

- Allana

(Although I did see an episode of Northern Exposure last night where a piano-tuner comes into the bar and insists on fixing the old upright. Marilyn later notes that the D above middle C is flat; the piano-tuner retorts that Persian rug weavers always left one knot tied wrong - "otherwise, the rug would be perfect." But I do admit to a false sense of security whenever Northern Exposure gets clever.)