Voyage to Uchronia

Paul Delany

In February 1812, Byron stood up to speak for the first time in the House of Lords. His speech was a passionate defence of the Nottingham weavers – followers of the mythical King Ludd – who had been smashing the new mechanical stocking-frames; and for the rest of his life Byron went on arguing that ‘we must not allow mankind to be sacrificed to improvements in mechanism.’ But what might have happened if the enemies of mechanism had changed their minds? The Difference Engine is one answer, in the form of an ‘uchronic’ novel: set in ‘no time’, instead of Utopia’s ‘no place’.

Gibson and Sterling propose that the Duke of Wellington is killed by a Luddite bomb in 1831. Tired of internecine struggle between Tories and workers, the country turns to the ‘Industrial Radical Party’ for a sweeping transformation of British society, instead of the actual modest reform of 1832. In 1855 the IRP is still in power, led by the great convert to its cause, Lord Byron. Shelley, faithful to the Luddites, has been exiled incommunicado on St Helena; Keats is a ‘clacker’ who programs difference engines – the Victorian predecessors of the computer. The true rulers of Britain are ‘merit Lords’ appointed for life: Lord Darwin, Lord Bentham, Lord Brunel and above all Lord Babbage. Charles Babbage really lived, of course (though not as a Lord), and really invented merit lordship, the computer, and many other improvements in mechanism. All one needs to accept, to set this novel going, is that Babbage’s genius should be properly recognised in his own time, instead of later.

The Difference Engine belongs to the thriving Post-Modern genre of historical pastiche, whose most notable recent example is A. S. Byatt’s Possession. But these two novels exploit the device of the ‘alternative past’ in very different ways. Byatt slides her texts into the Victorian canon while leaving as little trace of the seams as possible; she tries to make her work ‘pass’ for Victorian while leaving everything we know about the period intact. As a tribute to Victorianism, Possession stakes no claim on the present, except in the private lives of its contemporary characters. The Difference Engine, on the other hand, shuffles the cards of history in order to prove by example the ‘Wiener thesis’ of recent years: that Britain’s ambivalent response to the Industrial Revolution has led to its relative economic backwardness today.

Charles Babbage was the prophet of a modernised and meritocratic Britain. He wanted universal education; rationalised production methods; national scientific institutes modelled after the French Grandes Ecoles; reform of the Royal Society, which had become a chums’ club for non-scientists; and life peer-ages for savants and capitalists, so that the aristocracy would no longer be ‘as a body ... the least enlightened in point of knowledge, and the most separated from the mass of the people’. Babbage got off to a good start in the 1820s, when the Government gave him its biggest research grant ever to build his ‘difference engine’ (he promised to help extend the Empire by re-calculating the navigational tables). Many of his contemporaries recognised his genius, including Marx and Dickens (who put something of Babbage’s story into Daniel Doyce and the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit). But over the years, the Establishment steadily cut Babbage down to size. His candidate for the Presidency of the Royal Society, the great astronomer John Herschel, was defeated by the Duke of Sussex, whose main qualification was being the King’s brother. Technical education was left at the mercy of private patronage; Babbage failed to win a seat in the reformed Parliament; and Melbourne cut off funding for the difference engine and its successor, the ‘analytical engine’. Babbage lived till 1871, firing off brilliant ideas on economics, manufacturing, railways, postal services and operations research, but never getting his hands on the real levers of power.

In The Difference Engine, Gibson and Sterling ask us to imagine that Babbage’s ideas have become as pervasive m the 1850s as, say, Marx’s in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. The novel’s London still has the familiar trappings of music halls, whores and Thames mud. But steam-driven chariots are starting to appear on the streets, the middle class have telegram machines at home, and rows of difference engines spin their axles at the Central Statistics Bureau. The Industrial Radicals have made Britain a richer and more egalitarian country: but they have also turned their information system into a political weapon, even making their enemies ‘disappear’ as in the Argentine terror of the 1970s.

The plot of the novel, in brief, is that a freakishly hot summer has brought pestilence to London and allowed Luddite mobs to take over much of the capital; meanwhile a right-wing conspirator, Charles Egremont, schemes to make himself a dictator by seizing the Statistics Bureau. Against this backdrop of impending revolution, rival gangs are in pursuit of a mysterious box of punched cards, known as ‘the Modus’; like the Maltese Falcon, it leaves a trail of murder in its wake. The Modus is finally revealed as the weapon of a new generation of intellectual Luddites, who use it to attack the ‘great Napoleon’ – the world’s largest difference engine, instrument of the French Police. Instead of throwing a sabot into the gears, they make the engine run endless loops: the Modus is, in fact, the first computer virus. By 1990, evolution of the Modus will have produced artificial intelligence programs that have ‘gone critical’ and achieved humanlike self-consciousness. Herein lies a favourite theme of Gibson and Sterling: the official institutions of a society always work on yesterday’s agenda, while the future is being made by an underground of anarchists, criminals and fanatics.

The ‘cyberpunk’ school of Science Fiction, largely defined by Gibson and Sterling’s previous works, has zeroed in on this split between official and unofficial forces within the emerging ‘information society’. Both writers set their work in the early 21st century, projecting from trends already familiar to us. Gibson’s vision, the more dystopian of the two, assumes world dominance by Japanese conglomerates; routine modification of the ‘natural’ human body – everything from ‘jacking up’ the nervous system of warriors to providing ‘affordable beauty’ for all; and the replacement of traditional politics by global mergers between big business, the state and organised crime (themes that also appear in the originary 1982 cyberpunk film, Blade Runner). Power will not be based on tangible assets, but on control of ‘the matrix’ or ‘cyberspace’: the global data network that links huge concentrations of information. In Gibson’s trilogy of novels about cyberspace – Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive – hackers and data thieves represent the only opposition to informational totalitarianism.

However, this opposition is undercut by Gibson’s paranoid obsession with the symbiosis between parasite and host. In Neuromancer, for example, the town of Chiba (a real place, across the bay from Tokyo) is the world capital of biological modification and trade in human organs. Attached to it is a red-light district, the haunt of biotech criminals: ‘There were countless theories explaining why Chiba City tolerated the Ninsei enclave, but Case tended toward the idea that the Yakuza [the Japanese crime syndicates] might be preserving the place as a kind of historical park, a reminder of humble origins. But he also saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself.’

The literary idea of a world oscillating between order and entropy goes back to Thomas Pynchon in the Sixties: but cyberpunk has given it a more specifically political slant. Gibson’s novels are futuristic allegories of Reaganism, projections of the contrast between the booming of America’s sunbelt suburbs and the crumbling of its inner cities; the implicit message is that each manifestation is in some sense the cause of the other. The model can easily be extended, of course, to the relationship between the West and the ‘outlaw zones’ of the Third World, proving-grounds for drugs, weapons, pesticides and everything else too risky to be used back home. Gibson’s attitude to his imagined future is studiously detached (‘it’s going to happen anyway’) and even has a certain grim relish to it; the darkness of his vision is intensified by conspiratorial plots and an abrasive style that grafts technical jargon onto traditional hard-boiled prose. All of this has led Fredric Jameson to hail cyberpunk as ‘for many of us, the supreme literary expression if not of Post-Modernism, then of late capitalism itself’.

Sterling’s future is generally less menacing than Gibson’s. In his recent Islands in the Net, the corporate ruling class has banned nuclear weapons and imposed on the world a kind of progressive school ethos – though there’s still a secret police to crush those who prefer the old ways of conflict resolution. The politics of The Difference Engine seem to owe more to Sterling than to Gibson. It is a novel in the spirit of 1989, which assumes that in the long run the market and political pluralism are bound to prevail over Luddites and Leninists. Its message thus becomes rather tame: that we are all headed for a late capitalist nirvana, but Babbage would have got us there sooner. The sepia-tinted Victoriana of 1855, even with steam chariots and computers thrown in, serve the same purpose as all antiques: to reassure us against the menace of the present.

In Gibson’s other novels, it is in the future that the menace lies. We see a poisoned planet where most people live worse than they do now, and have more to fear. Nor does the author indulge in any environmental or political rhetoric of warning: rather, he is like the doctor who coldly lays out for you the probable course of what you have got. Perhaps this is the secret of cyberpunk’s appeal: it sends you a message you’d rather not hear, but one you can’t help listening to.