What is going on in the last chapter of Gibson & Sterling's "The Difference Engine"?
October 7, 2004 9:58 AM   Subscribe

What is going on in the last chapter of Gibson & Sterling's "The Difference Engine"? The story makes sense until just about the last paragraph of the second-to-last chapter, but the closing series of vignettes, titled "Modus: The Images Tabled", flies right over my head.
posted by Mars Saxman to Media & Arts (6 answers total)
obligatory spoiler alert for anyone who hadn't read it but was planning on it.

ok. from what i remember (been a while since i read it) the machine gains self-awareness. the idea i think is that the earlier a computer is invented (whether silicon chips or oily gears and stuff) the sooner it will become self aware. the software (punch cards) the story was about were the seed of this awakening. that help any?
posted by caution live frogs at 10:27 AM on October 7, 2004

According to Sterling,
NG: The structure of The Difference Engine --"Iterations" culminating in the coming to historical and self-consciousness of an AI of the Panopticon variety--is a compelling narrative strategy. Why (broadly) are the experiences of Sybil, Mallory, and Oliphant so crucial to the AI's development?

BS:The "Narratron" (as the unnamed machine narrator is named in our notes) is following the genesis of a program. That program, the Modus, contains a mathematical breakthrough that will enable the Narratron to achieve machine consciousness.

The Narratron is going through its extensive documentation, breathing life into long-dead figures associated with this "Modus" program. Radley writes it; Sybil steals it; Mallory accepts it and hides it; Oliphant pursues it, and so on. The Narratron, with its "iterations", is even more obsessed with this MacGuffin than the characters are.
Which I entirely misunderstood; I went through the whole thing without ever once wondering who was doing the narrating. I still don't get it, to be honest.
posted by ook at 10:52 AM on October 7, 2004

Response by poster: Ahh, thanks, it makes more sense now.

It had never occured to me to think of the narrator as a character; it never refers to itself or speaks directly to the reader.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:05 PM on October 7, 2004

Slightly OT, since it only explains references within the book, but the definitive online "Difference Engine" resource is The Difference Dictionary by Eileen Gunn.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 2:43 AM on October 8, 2004

ook - wow. i didn't ever wonder who was narrating the story either. now i want to go dig out my copy and re-read it. i've liked william gibson ever since my roommate was supposed to read neuromancer for a freshman year class; he noever opened the book, so i read it for him. i've not read anything by sterling yet; the collaboration with gibson was the first exposure i had to his ideas.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:58 AM on October 8, 2004

Its a while since I read it, but I recall that the collaboration worked really well. Sterling seemed to cover for Gibsons weakness in coming up with a recognisable plot and ,presumably, Gibson burned all of Sterlings attempts at dialogue, sealed the ashes in a lead box and buried it in a subduction zone. I wish someone would do that to him these days.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:57 AM on October 8, 2004

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