The Difference Engine (1990)

Backcover Synopsis: 1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetics engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race towards a rendezvous with history – and the future: Sybil Gerard – fallen women, politician’s tart, daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward “Leviathan” Mallory – explorer and paleontologist; Laurence Oliphant – diplomat, mystic, and spy. Their adventures begin with the discovery of box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for…

You take two brilliant writers, mix that with an excellent idea for an alternate history, have the setup for an excellent plot, and then … everything goes wrong. I have really no idea how those two authors could have made such a mess. If there’s one thing that can be said in favor of the book, the two authors nailed the steampunk setting perfectly. You feel like the difference engine must have changed the world on another timeline, but everything else, plot, characters, pacing, solution, all is badly done. It’s tedious and opaque, and worst of all, you can see the potential of what the book could have been. I’m sure there is an alternate reality where the book came out much better. But sadly it’s not ours.