The Difference Engine

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Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991.

In our world, Charles Babbage developed the principle of "the analytical engine" in 1834 but lost support of the British government in 1842 and could not complete work on the computer. In TDE, Babbage completes his work in the UK and his "engine" produces a wittily familiar but very different 1855: a Victorian world with mechanical computers. The plot is a thriller about a set of punch cards that make up the self-referential Modus Program (the product of Lady Ada Byron) which demonstrates "that any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish its own consistency" and which was "the ruination of the Grand Napoleon," the French supercomputer, by initiating "a series of nested loops" (421). By novel's end, Lady Ada sees closed systems as "the essence of the mechanical, the unthinking" and open systems "the very definition of the organic, of life and thought." If mathematics is "a great Engine for proving theorems, then we must say . . . that such an Engine lives . . . ." Before he died, "Lord Babbage" was working on an electronic Engine; combined with Lady Ada's Modus, such an engine would produce true AI (422). See under Background the entries for T. Hobbes, D. R. Hofstadter, and J. R. Lucas.

In a review in Extrapolation 52.3 (Fall 2011): 395, D. Harlan Wilson calls attention to the handling of The Difference Engine in the discussion(s) of steampunk in Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.'s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, which see at the internal link.

RDE et al., early; finishing 18Mar23