Cyberpunk novelists contort technology

The Difference Engine

By William Gibson and Bruce Sterling



That’s the word a friend of mine uses to describe books like the new novel by the God of cyberpunk William Gibson and co-author Bruce Sterling.

The Difference Engine, the long-awaited fourth novel by Gibson, is aptly described with that image: it draws you in, spits you out, sucks you in again and just when you think you know what’s going on, throws you a hundred and forty years forward into the present that’s clearly somebody else’s warped nightmare of technology’s gloomy eye.

It’s the eye, an Orwellian spectre stemming from an alternative history’s skewed development, that establishes the more disturbing elements of the book. Set in London in 1855, the steam-driven cybernetic engine (equivalent to your IBM, only bigger) holds power over the city, with the clackers feeding in requests and pulling up the files of all the seedy criminals and plenty of the ordinary citizens of England.

Actually, in this book of history-punk intrigue, it’s hard to imagine where exactly the ordinary citizens would fit in. Certainly he or she wouldn’t be represented by characters like General Sam Houston, the exiled ruler of Texas. Nor would Edward Mallory — Leviathan Mallory to the masses, and one of the many savants who work within the scientific hierarchy of this alternative reality — be considered an average individual.

Indeed, as the Great Stink, a polluted cloud of deathly fog rolling off the Thames to throw London into anarchy, begins to manifest itself, even the most ordinary folk seem to turn insane. This twisted foreshadowing of our own doom at the hands of technology and governmental stratification is excellently portrayed by the authors, whose beautiful renderings of a dank London are enhanced by the colorful dialogue and shadowy subterfuge. The plot of the novel is filled with secret alliances and allegiances: just as one who strikes gold revels at each new vein of riches, so too does the reader plumb the endless depth of this tale.

Endless would be another fine term to describe this work, not because the book is weighty and overlong — on the contrary it is an excellently written and compelling narrative — but because there is a pervading sense that this is just a footnote in the intricate text these authors have created.

A fascinating Phillip K. Dick-like genre, history-punk will prove appealing to everybody: Sci-fi fans will be engrossed in the images of the Great Stink and the behemoth engines; history buffs will delight in the clever twistings of truth (such as Karl Marx leading his communist revolt in Manhattan); science types will giggle at the theory of how back pains can be eliminated by reversing the polar electricity of the spinal column.

Disappointingly, the end wanders off into entertaining yet obscure passages that tend to confuse the blurry plot rather than add to it. It seems to be saying, “We’ve given you this story, and like life, things have changed, moved on, died and lived and will forever remain untold.”

This sense of letdown is coupled with the knowledge that you’ve obviously missed the intricate details, the subtle currents which make this book one that will live forever. For you will find yourself aching to reread and relive this adventuresome work.

The Difference Engine, published by Gollancz Limited in the U.K., has not yet been released in Canada. Ask your bookstore if it will be available in time for the holidays.

Defining the feminist eye

Language in Her Eye: Writing and Gender

Views by Canadian Women Writing in English

Coach House Press

308 pages

It is not surprising that the pieces in this anthology, dealing as they do with the very fabric of language as consciousness, should range through so many styles, so many forms of expression.

A variety of Canadian writers were invited to respond to the following question: What effect does feminism have upon writing and publishing in Canada. Does a distinctly female or feminist point of view exist? Can a writer legitimately take on the voice of those whose race, gender, or sexual orientation differ from her own?

The result is an intriguing collection of thoughtful, highly personal accounts, ranging from straight-forward essays to poetry which, both playful and subversive, strikes at the very heart of rediscovering language, uncovering its hidden contexts, and reclaiming it.

A fine example of this is Betsy Warland’s the breasts refuse, whose ten-page poem serves not only to express disenchantment and discovery within the confines that is used to define the feminine experience, but through its deconstruction and re-contextualization to reclaim it. She questions “proper definition,” incorporating snippets of common experience:

sit before the mirror
with chin in hand and rehearse the
look of fascination in your eyes.

nod and smile repeatedly. murmuring
‘How interesting.’

There are a number of common threads running through this book, engendering a feminine collectivity, which serves to underline and make more eloquent the individual experiences.

The authors often speak of themselves, of their own initial discomfort with a language which has failed to express their own sense of being. Many mention their struggle for self-articulation and their eventual acceptance that an inability to sink comfortably into a “gender-neutral” patriarchal form of consciousness is not due to any personal shortcoming. They speak of “overcoming” feelings of isolation, of oddity.

In a society where masculine experience is posited as “universal,” it is not surprising that an inability to share in this “universal human experience” would create a sense of alienation and self-doubt. The voices of these women writers create a refuge for those whose experiences have been denied and re-defined by language.

Many mention the self-assertion that rushed upon the heels of discovering other women writers, producing lists of authors who, by providing them with the necessity of self-recognition, enabled them to overcome their feelings of oddity, allowing them to trust in themselves. As Daphne Marlatt so succinctly states, “The struggle over reality is a deadly one that cuts to the root of being.”

The struggle over reality also manifests itself in the debate over gender/race constrictions in writing and the inevitable cries of censorship that emerge in its wake. Marlene Nourbese Philip questions the nature of white privilege within our society, emphasizing the necessity of the privileged to approach other cultures with humility.

The issue of responsibility is raised — those writers who most vigorously decry thought-censorship are often those who shrug off the idea of responsibility towards those groups they choose to depict.

Lee Maracle points out that “stories about women of colour written by white women are riddled with bias, stereotype and intellectual dishonesty.” She maintains that any book purporting to represent the consciousness of anyone who is significantly “other” cannot, by definition, do so — that inevitably, everything is filtered through the writer’s perspective, influenced by her own race and socioeconomic status.

As long as such books present themselves as insightful, as claiming to present truth about another, they cannot be anything but dishonest — even if they sincerely believe their work to be accurate. Here, however, the understanding of the audience also plays a role. People read books in order to feel connected to others, to believe that they have insight into characters, and this is most easily done when the perceptions of the characters — however remote they might be from the reader — are filtered through a similar set of presumptions and ideological frameworks. To confront the alien, the incomprehensible, is to be put off-kilter — but as the experience of the woman reader attempting to associate herself with the characters produced by male writers.

The juxtaposition of these two issues serves to give them greater meaning, for if I, as a white woman, associate myself with those women who write of their sense of gender alienation, it does not require too great a leap of the imagination to imagine a similar sensation of the part of a visible minority member, even if I cannot feel the specificity of their complaints.

By gathering these diverse, articulate responses, the editors have successfully provided a forum, an exploration of language through language which serves to both satisfy and arouse the consciousness of the reader.