Jun. 12th, 2010

christabel: courtesy of luis_mw (steampunk alice)
First thoughts: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1991 novel The Difference Engine was my first encounter with the Steampunk genre. Strictly speaking, one might argue my first encounter was in childhood, with the Disney film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or possibly with the original tv series of The Wild, Wild West in syndicated reruns . . . In any case, it's certainly true that it was my first encounter with Steampunk as a term.

On my first reading, when the book came out in paperback in '92, I was reading as a fan of Gibson's Neuromancer and its sequels, and as someone who avidly read Victorian novels for enjoyment. I was not yet an academic, although I was starting to imagine grad school as my next step, and I wasn't reading much science fiction, though I was keen on cyberpunk. I read it again in grad school, after reading Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil: Or the Two Nations; his character Dandy Mick Radley had an oddly familiar name that I just couldn't place until idle conversation at a party led me to realize that I apparently had a brain like a sieve. (G & S appropriate the major characters from that work for the first section of TDE, although they give all of them a very different spin.) I reread the book, and even gave a conference paper on the intersection of the two texts. A recent reread of my notes for this project, hoping to resurrect it, left me appalled at the facile things I am apparently capable of saying.

I've been intending a reread for some time. First of all, The Difference Engine continually makes the list of Influential Steampunk Works. And second, there seems to be a lot of backlash about it. Although it certainly has it fans, it seems that a lot of steampunks don't really like the book. This isn't surprising; it's a demanding book. It's dystopian, it's not an adventure story, the sole airship appears in a 1905 frame to a flashback, and it really, really helps to have an in-depth knowledge of Victorian culture and history in order to "get" everything. (This is *not* one of those books where the more you know, the more annoyed you get.) I happen, as a 19th century literature Ph.D., to have that level of background knowledge; but there is The Difference Dictionary, a fabulous resource for the vast percentage of the population who didn't waste, er, spend a decade of their adult life dedicated to the Victorian era: http://www.sff.net/people/gunn/dd/ ) I did not have most of that knowledge the first time I read it, and I liked the book well enough, but gave my first copy away to someone who was interested in reading it; I didn't think I'd likely reread it.

I was wrong. And now I'm coming back to the book for the first time in over a decade from a very different place. My Ph.D. is completed; I'm working on a series of neoVictorian conference papers and nascent projects which I'm hoping will add up into a book, and one of them involves this book. I've been exploring and participating in the Steampunk subculture as well as the fiction. I'm coming in this reread wondering what's going to stand out for me this time, and wondering if the text will stand up to my re-reread, and to the place it's come to occupy in my imagination.

Hence, I'm going to blog this reread. (I'm also rereading Sybil, and I'm sure there will be additional byways along the way.) I'll be linking to this journal, eventually, from places where people might be interested in sharing their opinions. So . . .

Shall we begin?

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