Gibson and Sterling's Alternative History:
The Difference Engine as Radical Rewriting of Disraeli's Sybil

Elisabeth Kraus

Node9 1 (December 1997)

[1] In The Difference Engine William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, co-inventors of cyberpunk, refrain from introducing the expected paraphernalia of the genre such as surgically, cybernetically or chemically augmented characters, or simstim (simulated stimulation). Yet, the more subtle changes they implement into the otherwise intact historical mid-19th century Victorian England reflect in significant ways contemporary social, aesthetic, and philosophical attitudes, culminating in the surprised reader's insight on the last page of the book that the novel was narrated by an Artificial Intelligence coming to consciousness "in the final exclamation point."1

[2] This essay will trace the methods through which Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1845), a social novel asserting that the evils of the industrial revolution and the concomitant barbarousness of workers and employers can only be redeemed by the humanistic values of the enlightened landowning aristocracy, is transformed into The Difference Engine, with a scientific meritocracy that holds up information as the standard of value, and that asserts a technoculture in which the human and the mechanical easily merge. Catastrophism and chaos theory, positing "prigoginic leaps" to "a new, more differentiated, higher level of 'order' or organization,"2 offer a more positive outlook than Disraeli's uniformitarian stance in Sybil.

[3] Gibson and Sterling work from the premise that Charles Babbage did succeed in building not only his steam-driven Difference Engine for differential equations, but also his Analytical Engine, the first mechanical general-purpose computer and forerunner of the modern digital computer. The Information Age fully embraces England because "savants" dominate Parliament, assisted by Queen Victoria's husband prince Albert, who is passionately interested in science. The most important intellectuals of the era decide politics: Besides the mathematician and mechanician Babbit there are the historical figures I. K. Brunel, designer of the first transatlantic steamer and engineer of the Thames tunnel project, Charles Darwin and his friend, the uniformitarian geologist Sir Charles Lyell, anthropologist Sir Francis Galton, the originator of Eugenics, biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, and Laurence Oliphant, diplomat and travel writing connoisseur of the Crimea, China and Japan.

[4]Most of the major English Romantic poets also figure in The Difference Engine, but with the exception of Blake their professions have been changed. Even Blake "wrote and illustrated his own books of poems" because he "[c]ouldn't find a proper publisher."3 Lord Byron, amazingly long-lived, is Prime Minister. As to Percy Bysshe Shelley's fate, opinions disagree. Some maintain that the poet-turned-Luddites-leader "died in prison ages ago," whereas others insist that Byron exiled Shelley to the island of St. Helena where "he's since written whole books of plays and sonnets" (DE 301). There are printed posters in London announcing a symposium of the Chautauqua Society of the Susquehanna Phalanstery on "The Social Philosophy of the Late Dr. Coleridge" (DE 248). John Keats appears as a gifted "kinotropist," a creator of steam and computer-driven moving pictures similar to the LEDs of today's electronic signs. "The fine poets of England" are now represented by Winthrop Mackworth Praed, master of lighter poetry, Bryan Waller Procter, a popular writer of songs and lyrics looked down upon by Shelley and Keats, and John Wilson Croker, in reality the MP and Tory politician, who opposed the Reform Bill and fiercely attacked Keats (DE 300). Lord Byron's only legitimate daughter, Lady Ada Byron, is elevated to the "Queen of Engines, the Enchantress of Numbers," who produces the "Modus Program," which ruins even the powerful French governmental steam engine, the Great Napoleon.

[5] To what extent, then, does this political setup change Victorian society? In his 1845 "Advertisement" (preface) to Sybil Or The Two Nations Disraeli informs his reader that this novel is one in a series dealing with "the Condition of the People." He assures us that in case we "might suspect that the Writer had been tempted to some exaggeration in the scenes that he has drawn, and the impressions he has wished to convey," we are mistaken. On the contrary, not only are "the descriptions, generally, [...] written from his own observations," but "he has found the absolute necessity of suppressing much that is genuine. For so little do we know of the state of our own country, that the air of improbability which the whole truth would inevitably throw over these pages, might deter some from their perusal."4 Major social maladies described by Disraeli are extreme poverty, caused by the machine-induced devaluation of hand crafted products, subsequent illness and contagious diseases, child labour, prostitution, and the breaking up of families. After his entry into Parliament, the statesman Disraeli was alerted to these social problems, and his visits to the industrial north led him to sympathize with those Radicals, mainly working-class, who fought for constitutional reform.

[6] The subtitle of the book, "The Two Nations," is a reference to the class division between 'The Rich and The Poor'. And it is indicative that both novels have a mystery-adventure plot, but in the case of Sybil the hunted treasure is a writ proving her gentility and thus enabling her to marry a nobleman, whereas in The Difference Engine the precious goal is the MODUS, a computer program which provides a challenge for Ada and Sybil, but is irrelevant for the fulfillment of their societal roles as women.

[7] Walter Gerard, his daughter Sybil, Egremont, Mick Radley and Captain Swing are the major links between Disraeli's Sybil and Gibson and Sterling's alternative history. In Sybil Walter Gerard, the charismatic leader of the factory workers, was born of gentle blood but cheated out of his property as a result of previous religious strife. He now works as a weaver and overseer at a mill in Northern England. Gerard does not believe in pure Marxism, as does the self-educated workman Stephen Morley, but both are highly versed in social and political philosophy, and are initiators of the "People's Charter" proposed to Parliament in 1838. The purpose of the Charter was to secure political equality, since representation of the poor would lead to at least minimal social security.

[8] Egremont, the spoilt Eton and Oxford-educated nobleman with sympathies for the Radicals, can be seen as spokesman for Disraeli's ideas. Although raised with maxims such as "To do nothing and get something formed a boy's ideal of a manly career" (S 34), and pressed by his calculating brother to marry the rich heiress of Mowbray, Egremont's "generous spirit" and "tender heart" (S 33) induced him to leave his heartless, class-proud Lord Marney family. Disguised as journalist Mr. Franklin, Egremont tours the factory towns and mining districts of Northern England for a first-hand impression of the workers' situation. Through Gerard, his daughter Sybil -- whom he falls in love with -- and Morley, Egremont becomes acquainted with socialist ideas, and later even supports the Charter in Parliament. When the National Petition was not considered, the Chartists called a general strike, and terrible violence broke out in Birmingham and other industrial centers. The fanatical Hell-cats set fire to Mowbray castle, but conveniently in time a box which contains documents that prove Walter Gerard to be the rightful owner of Mobray is discovered in the Round Tower of the castle. Meanwhile Walter Gerard, aware that the riot is getting out of control, attempts to calm them down, and is shot dead by Egremont's brother. As a result of this discovery, Sybil is now of equal rank with Egremont, who, as the new Lord Marney, will never be "an oppressor of the people, a plunderer of the church" (S 318). Sybil and Egremont decide they "will never part again" (S 484) and continue their efforts to achieve social justice for the working people.

[9] Disraeli's Sybil is a very conventional sample of Victorian womanhood. Educated in a monastery, she is very religious and cares selflessly for the sick and poor. When Egremont first encounters Sybil in Book II, Chapter 5, the setting -- almost unbearably kitschy to contemporary sensibilities -- foreshadows the romance plot:

At this moment a sudden flush of rosy light, suffusing the grey ruins, indicated that the sun had just fallen; and, through a vacant arch that overlooked them, alone in the resplendent sky, glittered the twilight star. The hour, the scene, the solemn stillness and the softening beauty, repressed controversy, induced even silence. [...] when from the Lady's chapel there rose the evening hymn to the Virgin. A single voice; but tones of almost supernatural sweetness; tender and solemn, yet flexible and thrilling. [...] in the vacant and star-lit arch on which his glance was fixed, he beheld a female form. She was apparently in the habit of a Religious, yet scarcely could be a nun, for her veil, if indeed it were a veil, had fallen on her shoulders, and revealed her thick tresses of long fair hair. The blush of deep emotion lingered on a countenance which, though extremely young, was impressed with a character of almost divine majesty; while her dark eyes and long dark lashes, contrasting with the brightness of her complexion and the luxuriance of her radiant looks, combined to produce a beauty as rare as it is choice; and so strange, that Egremont might for a moment have been pardoned for believing her a seraph, who had lighted on this sphere, or the fair phantom of some saint haunting the sacred ruins of her desecrated fame. (S 77)

The setting in nature, conducive to contemplation and religious feeling, is very important, as is her "character of almost divine majesty," her supernatural, "seraphic" beauty. At Mr. Trafford's factory, the only positive example in Sybil of benevolent relations between the employer and the employed, Sybil is called "the queen" by the children, and she greets them as "[m]y subjects" (211). The hierarchic structure of society is never put in doubt.

[10] Egremont always remained skeptical towards Stephen Morley's ideas such as the abolition of the family. Egremont maintains, "Give men homes, and they will have soft and homely notions." To Morley, "Home is a barbarous idea; the method of a rude age; home is isolation; therefore anti-social. What we want is Community" (S 223). When Walter Gerard defends the Abbots and Monks as "easy landlords," who were "in every district a point of refuge for all who needed succor, counsel, and protection" (S 71, 72), Morley maintains that "[t]he railways will do as much for mankind as the monasteries did" (S 96). Both Egremont and Gerard conjure up visions of what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, three years later in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, call the "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations," "the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors'" -- ties that were "pitilessly torn asunder" by the bourgeoisie's "brutal exploitation."5 The last abbot of Marney Abbey, who also bore the name Walter Gerard, was tortured and hanged, his property confiscated. As Paul Bloomfield puts it, "Disraeli, after all, was never a Jacobin, so for Egremont as for him the watchword once again is noblesse oblige. If this is not socialism, neither is it a plea for preserving class distinctions."6 Gibson and Sterling turn Disraeli into a hack writer of sentimental novels, but grant him the sentence: "One may say what one likes about the institution of merit-lordship. But at least it has guaranteed that the leadership of our country is not stupid" (DE 193).

[11] The Difference Engine opens with old, sick Sybil Gerard sitting on a balcony in Cherbourg in 1905:

COMPOSITE IMAGE, OPTICALLY encoded by escort-craft of the trans-Channel airship Lord Brunel: aerial view of suburban Cherbourg, October 14, 1905.
A villa, a garden, a balcony.
Erase the balcony's wrought-iron curves, exposing a bath-chair and its occupant. Reflected sunset glints from the nickel-plate of the chair's wheel-spokes.
The occupant, owner of the villa, rests her arthritic hands upon fabric woven by a Jacquard loom.
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.
Her name is Sybil Gerard. [...]
Her attention is fixed upon the sky, upon a silhouette of vast and irresistible grace-metal, in her lifetime, having taught itself to fly. In advance of that magnificence, tiny unmanned aeroplanes dip and skirl against the red horizon.
Like starlings, Sybil thinks. (DE 1)

Disraeli's young beautiful angelic creature was mainly devoted to nature and Christian charity; the white-haired Sybil in The Difference Engine shows a scientific interest in technological achievements such as airships and planes, whereby, as Herbert Sussman has so aptly pointed out, "the distinction between the constructed and the natural, between aircraft and swooping birds dissolves." The description of her hands betrays "our contemporary sense of the body as programmed by DNA, while also suggesting an unprecedented form of beauty in the body perceived beyond the human/machine binary as a 'vital machine.'"7

[12] Sybil has always been interested in science. She recollects how, 50 years ago, working under the assumed name of Sybil Jones as a singer in shows and a private prostitute ("dollymop"), she talked politics with Dandy Mick Radley. "It's what a cove knows that counts, ain't it, Sybil? More than land or money, more than birth. Information. Very flash" (DE 8). Mick Radley, who advances from a simple but inquisitive, self-educated workman in the book Sybil to a famous 'clacker' (computer programmer) in the alternative world, however, has discovered her real name. Since he had once admired and followed Walter Gerard as a reformer, he expects a lot from the agitator's witty, educated daughter and makes her his apprentice. Mick is convinced that "[t]he Byron men, the Babbage men, the Industrial Radicals [...] own Great Britain," and there is no use fighting them because "'the Rads do play fair, or fair enough to manage -- and you can become one of 'em, if you're clever! You can't get clever men to fight such a system, as it makes too much sense to 'em" (DE 22). And Mick has "uses for a clever girl" (DE 6), therefore he will encourage her to join the union, "a knowledge guild" (DE 15) and take her to Paris. The only reminder of Disraeli's virtuous Sybil occurs with a twinkle of the eye: When the alternative Sybil steals a shawl in a shop, she grabs it, lifts her skirt, stuffs it, "Then stand[s] quite straight, with a psalm-singing look, like a gentry girl" (DE 10).

[13] Her father had promised her "She would live like gentry in a green and quiet England, when King Steam was wrecked. When Byron and his Industrial Radicals were utterly destroyed..." (DE 8). But shortly before her father's arrest, "[s]he had seen then, with heart-crushing clarity, the utter magnitude of her father's defeat. His ideals would be lost -- not just misplaced but utterly expunged from history." He had told her "Learn to speak. It's all we have that can fight them"(DE 17). What Mick appreciates in Sybil is "the blarney skill and the daring pluck that was Mr. Walter Gerard's" (DE 24), and these qualities make her worthy of becoming his apprentice. Marriage is not their goal.

[14] Instead of religious beliefs, it is science that counts. "The Rad Parliament wouldn't care that Mr. Aaron [a Jew] was no Christian. They'd given Charles Darwin a lordship, and he said that Adam and Eve were monkeys" (DE 10). Mick handles the perforated cards for the kinotrope "gently, like a Bible" (DE 19). Both are interested in the new technologies, be it "a counter-top credit-machine," or "shifting letters," "a slow sort of kinotrope for Aaron's adverts" such as "CONVERT YOUR MANUAL PIANO INTO A KASTNER'S PIANOLA" (DE 10-11), or "GURNEY'S 'REGENT' POCKET STEAM-ENGINE, intended for use with domestic sewing machines" (DE 18). In the Garrick Theatre Sybil admires the small "Babbage Engine," "a kinotrope model, no taller than Sybil herself." "[D]ozens of knobbed brass columns gleamed, set top and bottom into solid sockets bored through polished plates, with shining levers, ratchets, a thousand steel gears cut bright and fine" (DE 20). Sybil feels she wants to "possess it somehow." Mick feels her "special frisson," and promises to make a clacker of her, just like "the very Queen of Engines," Lady Ada Byron, who "lives and swears by the power of gray matter, and not her blue blood" (DE 21, 22). Mick does not resent lordly privilege on the whole, only when it is used irresponsibly. Consequently, he approves of the Rad Lords, the Industrial Radicals. To him "the Luddites are dead as cold ashes" (DE 22). Himself once a fighter for the rights of labor, he had to realize "Lord Charles Babbage made blueprints while we made pamphlets. And his blueprints built this world" (DE 22). Mick, being naturally so inventive, uses them for his own purposes, and thus anticipates Constance Penley and Andrew Ross's argument in their book Technoculture that we should devote more time "to the conditions for creating technological countercultures in the West."8 Mick offers to take Sybil to Paris and change her ID number, so she can escape her fallen woman-stamp and get "[a] life without a past" (DE 23), but he is murdered at the end of the "First Iteration."

[15] M.P. Egremont, Disraeli's aristocratic hero with a social conscience, becomes a coward and betrayer of Walter and Sybil Gerard in The Difference Engine. Sybil's roommate Hetty tells Mallory that Sybil "had a child by an M.P. when she was young" (DE 228), but Egremont spurned her. He is afraid that his early Luddite sympathies and his closeness to Walter Gerard may be revealed and stifle his political career (DE 393), but secretly he supports the insurrection of the "Luddites" and hopes to restore the power of the landed aristocracy.

[16] Egremont's ideological point of view is also supplanted by that of the fictive geologist and discoverer of the dinosaurs, Dr. Mallory, the son of a mad hatter. He carries on hot debates as a defender of the theory of Catastrophism, which also led him to the discovery of the continental drift in 1865, against apostles of Uniformitarianism, who are convinced that 'natura non facit saltum'. Mallory explains the extinction of the giant Land Leviathans as a sudden catastrophic failure of the ecological system. Darwin, on the other hand, felt that any "caprice" in the world would make science impossible. This scientific controversy mirrors the debate about the environmental catastrophe in Victorian England when a combination of a heat wave, pollution from smokestacks, and gas escaping from excavations for the Underground results in the collapse of the ecological system of London, the "Big Stink." Instead of the technophobic reaction we get in Sybil, the Radlords in the alternative House of Parliament take this chaos as a chance for the emergence of a new technoculture. Gibson and Sterling have fun when they have Dizzy (Disraeli), now a hack writer of sentimental novels, seemingly conform to their philosophy and tell Mallory:

There are tumults of the mind, when, like the great convulsions of Nature, all seems anarchy and returning chaos; yet often, in those moments of vast disturbance, as in the strife of Nature itself, some new principle of order, or some new impulse of conduct, develops itself, and controls, and regulates, and brings to an harmonious consequence, passions and elements which seem only to threaten despair and subversion. (DE 192)

However, when Mallory finds these words "rather good," Dizzy jokes: "Like it? From your new chapter."

[17] Fascination with technology is palpable throughout The Difference Engine. For instance, Mallory proudly displays his waistcoat, "which was woven in a dizzy mosaic of tiny blue-and-white squares. Ada Checkers, the tailors called them, the Lady having created the pattern by programming a Jacquard loom to weave pure algebra" (DE 101). Mallory is also the most important link to Lady Ada Byron, since she trusts him with the French Engine cards on the race track when she is blackmailed by villains. Mallory hides the precious program in the Dinoraur's head in the museum and thus indirectly saves them for Sybil. The fictive Ada is described as an indebted gambler and a whore, but at the same time as a mathematical genius, like the historical Ada Byron, who, in 1843, described the Analytical Engine in these terms:

In enabling mechanism to combine together general symbols, in succession of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science. [...] Thus not only the mental and material, but the theoretical and the practical in the mathematical world, are brought into more intimate and effective connexion with each other. We are not aware of its being on record that anything partaking of the nature of what is so well designated the Analytical Engine has been hitherto proposed, or even thought of, as a practical possibility, any more than the idea of a thinking or of a reasoning machine.9

It is this kind of sensibility, this openness for the enhancement of the creative by the mechanical that leads the way into the future according to Gibson and Sterling.

[18] Also the narrative situation in the two novels is very different: Sybil is told by an authorial narrator whose ideological position is very consistent from beginning to end and corresponds with Egremont's/Disraeli's views. In The Difference Engine the reader is not given a stable narrative perspective throughout the novel, but protagonists and points of view shift in mid-stream, very much like RAM, random-access memory that designates non-sequential electronic storage. The final chapter, "MODUS" (397-429), abandons narrative altogether and instead contains a pastiche of excerpts from Babbage's autobiography, Parliamentary minutes, faked memoirs and letters, newspaper accounts, and a lecture by Ada Byron. That the first five chapters are called "Iterations" is of course a clue to the surprise ending. A computer iteration is a "repetition of a sequence of instructions [...] characterised by a set of initial conditions, an iterative step and a termination condition."10 The aim is ever increasing accuracy. When feedback loops and the principle of self-organization are built in, the man-generated computer is able to create Artificial Intelligences, with which Gibson populated his Neuromancer Trilogy. Bruce Sterling admits that, since "this book [...] purports to be a thing written by an alternate computer in an alternate 1991," "a number of gratuitous in-joke references to our world" strike him as a violation, like an Orwellian reference to the Central Statistics Bureau's keeping "a brotherly eye on all the information traffic."11

[19] Only the historical travel writer Laurence Oliphant, who was added by Gibson and Sterling to the arsenal of Disraeli's characters, "senses his being a computer-generated character. Oliphant is the one character who's aware of the all-seeing eye; the all-seeing eye is, of course, the narrator of the book. It's carrying out this vast surveillance of the 19th century from an alternate 1991."12 But the "Eye" obviously has a double meaning. Many facets of Oliphant's fascinating historical life are woven into The Difference Engine, such as his stay in Crimea as correspondent for the London Times, his missions to North America, India, China, and Japan as private secretary to Lord Elgin, or his joining of Thomas Lake Harris' utopian community in New York State. What Gibson and Sterling add to Oliphant's biofiction are his visionary schemes for the Engines. Oliphant explains to Mallory that the Royal Geographical Society should invest in examining "the sources of our own society. Why confine exploration to physical geography, when there are so many problems of political, and indeed moral, geography, problems as yet unsolved?" (DE 104). These ideas lead to the distribution of "citizen-cards," ID-cards and credit cards with "Engine-stippled" portraits of every citizen, by which the "Central Statistics Bureau" can track every person's move. A police state of total surveillance threatens. "The Eye" had been Oliphant's idea, but soon he sensed "its all-seeing gaze full upon him" (DE 378). The disappearance of people in London plagues him with worry and guilt.

[20] It is Mick Radley who points to an escape from the Foucauldian controlled state. His skill in clacking, his technological expertise helps him beat the system. He provides Sybil, who hides from her father's enemies, with a new identity by manipulating the machine, and she successfully escapes to France with Ada Byron's powerful punched cards employed to disrupt the central government Engines of both Britain and France. In a lecture given in France, Ada talks about the Modus in the same way as Gibson describes the coming to full self-awareness of the artificial intelligence in Neuromancer. Leibniz' dream of finding "a deeper formal system," "the Characteristica Universalis," "a fixed and finitely describable set of rules and axioms," was proved invalid, because "the execution of the so-called Modus Program demonstrated that any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish its own consistency." It "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!" (DE 421). Yet she asserts that "the Modus technique of self-referentiality will someday form the bedrock of a genuinely transcendent meta-system of calculatory mathematics," she awaits the construction of "an Engine of vast capacity, one capable of iterations of untold sophistication and complexity":

[...] is not a closed system the essence of the mechanical, the unthinking? And is not an open system the very definition of the organic, of life and thought? [...] we must say, through the agency of the Modus, that such an Engine lives, and could indeed prove its own life, should it develop the capacity to look upon itself. [...] As thinking beings, we may envision the universe, though we have no finite way to sum it up. The term, 'universe,' is not in fact a rational concept, though it is something of such utter immediacy that no thinking creature can escape a pressing knowledge of it, and indeed, an urge to know its workings, and the nature of one's own origin within it." (DE 421-422)

[21] At the end, when Sybil unsettles Ada's self-confidence by calling her "just a funny little grey-haired blue-stocking," Ada asks her male escort: "Am I?" When he gently answers, "Madame, [...] you are la Reine des Ordinateurs," she gazes into her hand mirror and sees a vision of 1991 London as one great Babbage Engine,

the cyclonic hum of a trillion twisting gears, all air gone earthquakedark in a mist of oil, in the frictioned heat of intermeshing wheels. Black seamless pavements, uncounted tributary rivulets for the frantic travels of the punched-out lace of data, the ghosts of history loosed in this hot shining necropolis. Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning [...], human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye. And when a given face has served its purpose, it crumbles [...]. But new fabrics of conjecture are knitted in the City's shining cores, swift tireless spindles flinging off invisible loops in their millions, while in the hot unhuman dark, data melts and mingles, churned by gear-work to a skeletal bubbling pumice, dipped in a dreaming wax that forms a simulated flesh, perfect as thought. (DE 428)

This extremely poetic passage about transitoriness and ever new beginnings in the context of computer-generated intelligence prepares us for Lady Ada's demise. She has "served her purpose," like the innumerable ghosts of history, and her vision is superseded by another vision: that of the AI, the composer of the novel, contemplating its own coming to consciousness and transcending space and time:

It is not London-but mirrored plazas of sheerest crystal, the avenues atomic lightning, the sky a super-cooled gas, as the Eye chases its own gaze through the labyrinth, leaping quantum gaps that are causation, contingency, chance. Electric phantoms are flung into being, examined, dissected, infinitely iterated.
In this City's center, a thing grows, an auto-catalytic tree, in almost-life, feeding through the roots of thought on the rich decay of its own shed images, and ramifying, through myriad lightning-branches, up, up, toward the hidden light of vision,
Dying to be born.
The light is strong,
The light is clear;
The Eye at last must see itself
I see:
I see,
I see

Even the typography reenacts this merging of transcendent vision and self-contemplation, all one seeing. The image of the "crystal" already has positive connotations earlier in the book, when Mallory perceives positive change: "Within the faltering maelstrom, a nucleation of spontaneous order had arisen! Now, like a cloudy muck resolving into crystals, everything would change" (DE 258). Ada Byron's prediction of a living engine contemplating itself is fulfilled, Mallory's strong belief in Catastrophism, open systems and prigoginic leaps reverberate in the "leaping quantum gaps that are causation, contingency, chance."

[22] Gibson and Sterling surround us with data-existences, ghosts, masks, simulated flesh, iterated electronic phantoms and images. The distinction between the human and the nonhuman seems irrelevant in this alternative Victorian history. And this view would certainly irritate Disraeli more than the abolition of classes.


1 William Gibson himself confirmed this reading: "the narrative you have just read is [...] a long self-iteration as this thing attempts to boot itself up, which it does in the final exclamation point." Daniel Fischlin, Veronica Hollinger, Andrew Taylor, "'The Charisma Leak': A Conversation with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling". Science-Fiction Studies 19 (1992): 1-16. p. 10.

2 Fischlin, Fn. 9, p. 15. Quotation by Alvin Toffler.

3 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine (New York: Bantam, 1992), p. 300. Hereafter abbreviated as DE and cited in the text.

4 Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil Or The Two Nations (London: Longmans, Green, 1881) n.p. Hereafter abbreviated as S and cited in the text.

5 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, publ. in London 1848 in German, transl. into English in 1850. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: Norton, 1968) vol.2, p. 1357.

6 Paul Bloomfield, Disraeli (London: Longmans, Green, 1961), p. 27.

7 Herbert Sussman, "Cyperbunk Meets Charles Babbage: The Difference Engine as Alterantive Victorian History." Victorian Studies 38 (1994): 1-23. p. 20.

8 Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, eds. Technoculture (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1991), xi.

9 Quoted in Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 297.


11 Daniel Fischlin, p. 11.

12 ibid., p. 10.

Elisabeth Kraus, Graz University