Wednesday, December 17, 2008
William Gibson & Bruce Sterling: The Difference Engine (1991)
"[T]he execution of the so-called Modus Program demonstrated that any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish is 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 [computing Engine]; 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!" This collaborative fiction imagines how history would have changed if Charles Babbage's famed Difference and Analytic Engines had been successfully built in the 19th-century, ushering in a mechanical computing era. Prior to the beginning of the narrative, the new computing technology allowed a scientific ideology to take over England, with the former Luddite-sympathizer Lord Byron changing his stance and violently putting down any resistance to the development of machinery. Because the computing "Engine" was invented prior to the business adoption of automated data processing, the computing revolution is used to automate factory production and provide data to an increasingly intrusive surveillance state. The book itself describes the search for a mysterious box of punched cards, which contain an unknown program that threatens to overturn the current "Engine" regime. Irreverently portraying historical figures (Ada Byron, Keats, Babbage, etc.) and attentive to the anarchist strains of the period, the style of novel strongly resembles Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" and "Against the Day" (though neither Gibson nor Sterling seem to have mastered the period's idiom as well as Pynchon). Also like Pynchon, Gibson and Sterling amplify the 19-century's obsession with order, or rather capitalized Order in the most metaphysical/scientific sense. In their revisionist history, English nationalism comes to center around that Order as embodied in the computer. But just as London is disrupted by anarchic violence throughout the book, this ideal of Order becomes undone by the increasing complexity of the computing Engines. The book ends by gesturing towards the creation of a mechanical AI, which through emergence would render the world of the narrative obsolete (the chapters are framed through ekphrastic descriptions of daguerreotypes, displaying a nostalgic yearning for the simplicities of the 19-century's concepts). But despite the fragmentation of the narrative and its mediation through descriptions of photographs and, at the end, various records, the world of the book remains quite knowable, revealing that while Order/Chaos have been thematized throughout, they remain safely contained within the narrative, unlike in Pynchon's work.