Gibson and Ferguson

Alternative versions of history are a perennially engrossing topic, with perhaps the most elaborate exposition of the theme being from Niall Ferguson in Virtual History. This propounds the idea that as individuals in history are not aware of the future, but are aware of possible courses of action that are open, to them it should follow that history is partly a documentation of those courses. What if the Roman Empire had succeeded in vanquishing Germany? What if Charles the First had continued his invasion of Scotland and thereby prevented Cromwell from taking power? What if Stuart Britain had been more inclined to grant devolution to North America and had thereby assuaged the need for US independence? What if French military assistance to the American colonists had never been needed and French finances had been left sufficiently robust to avoid the revolution? What if the Stalin had maintained his pact with Hitler and not entered the second world war, thereby allowing a German victory over Europe? What if the Soviets had opted for a full-out attack on the West rather than opting for a cold war policy? At that point the powers were more finely balanced while Russian endurance in adversity (as demonstrated in the Second World War) was far stronger than that of the United States (which had been extremely reluctant to enter either world war and whose population detested the idea of soldiers dying for the Europeans). The result would well have been Soviet victory, a scenario made impossible by the advantage given by the Cold War to the United States (allowing the US to accumulate both capital and weaponry).

All of which somehow falls short of bringing us to the topic of The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. The alternate history presented by this book follows from the premise that Charles Babbage had been able to perfect and build his analytical engine, thereby transforming the industrial revolution and inaugurating the era of computing a hundred years early. The industrial revolution becomes an automation revolution (so that Jacquard looms can be programmed) which in turn worsens the luddite riots, which in turn leads to the destruction of the assets of the landed classes, and which in turn leads to the election of a new reforming administration that continues the technological revolution but with the pace of democratic and social reform quickened. As an end-result the British Empire is greatly strengthened in both economic and military terms. The premise is reasonable enough, but the consequences that the authors trace as following from it are far more questionable.

For example, in this version of history New York has become a communist republic under Karl Marx. Even given the context that the authors build around it (one where most of North America is part of the British Empire and the remaining regions are impoverished) it is somewhat difficult to see that this eventuality could ever have come to pass. In the first place, it seems improbable that the British would have allowed New York of all cities to remain independent (the city had been finely divided during the war of independence). In the second place the tradition of individualism in the United States makes it improbable that communism could have gained a hold, even if the communist victory was achieved as an accident during city-wide rioting. The appointment of Byron as Prime Minister is also somewhat suspect. It is accurate to note that Byron did address the House of Lords on liberal subjects, but his private life was nonetheless already more than sufficiently scandalous as to make any furthering of a political career somewhat unlikely.

All of these occurrences are far from having been impossible and all of them can probably have reputable defences put forward for them. The issue is how these changes have been made. Unlike Ferguson, Gibson and Sterling do not appear to see history as a sequence of events, but as the product of entropy operating within an otherwise ordered system, or, perhaps more accurately as a pseudo-random system. Certain facets of this version of history appear quite unaltered (Huxley and Marx), while others appear entirely different (Byron and Disraeli). For example, if Byron was respectable enough to become Prime Minister and to avert the divorce from his wife it seems improbable that Ada Byron would have been educated with such an emphasis on the sciences and mathematics – under Byron’s influence literature and music would probably have dominated her education. Why was Ada not transfigured in the way her father was? Moreover, characters are deliberately depicted as inherently unpredictable. For example, Mallory’s sudden visit to a prostitute does not appear entirely congruent with the earlier depiction of him, a fact that appears to be deliberately held in reserve to catch the reader off guard. The point is not so much that it is ‘out of character’ but that no attempt is made to relate it to his character as another novelist might well have done. The same applies to the structure of the novel, which can neither be properly described as being either linear or episodic, and would instead appear to be based on "causation, contingency, chance."

As such, Sybil is introduced as the main character and is then deposed with the phrase "their paths diverge forever." Oliphant is casually announced to be dying of cancer at the end of the novel, with a potential death for Mallory is averted in favour of a more pleasant one; "that chain of events does not occur."(1)

The novel explicates much of this in the debate over evolution in the novel, with Mallory favouring a model based upon mutation in response to catastrophic events, and denounces the "doctrinaire" "true and natural course of historical development" in these terms "history works by catastrophe… there is no history – there is only contingency." This appears to be endorsed by the chance Marxist rebellion (one could argue that this is in keeping with the Victorian preoccupation with their society being overwhelmed), caused by the pollution of the Thames forcing all but the working class out of London and only foiled by the arrival of the rain. Yet the novel modifies this view, as catastrophism is forced to give way to the discovery of continental drift.

The novel resolves this ambivalence by pulling something rather surprising out if its hat; Gödel’s theorem; "any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish its own inconsistency," as expounded by Lady Ada Byron. The principle is of a plot hinged upon the discovery of Gödelian theory (not unlike the role of the chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics devoted to comedy in The Name of the Rose).

It is one thing to suggest that Gödel’s theorem applies to differing disciplines
(including the humanities) and quite another to suggest that it does so in same manner to all disciplines. As Jerry Fodor writes "It is, after all, entirely possible to doubt that ‘art, ethics and religion’ are primarily in the business of explaining things: not, anyhow, in anything like the way that geology and biology and physics seek to do. In which case, it’s hard to see how the putative unity of scientific explanations could be a model for consilience between science and ‘the humanities’." But this would appear to be precisely what Ada Byron states in the novel; "if human discourse could be interpreted as the exfoliation of a deeper formal system… it was a dream of Leibniz to find such a system, the Characteristica Universalis." Mallory says much the same thing when comparing the social disorder in London to molecules flying apart.

In describing consilience Jerry Fodor criticises Edmund Wilson thus; "The psychology endorsed here is no advance on Hume or Mill, and the exposition is markedly less sophisticated." The point is a legitimate one; as the book would appear to advance a form of taxonomy in which all may be described using the vocabulary of physics, including the workings of social unrest. In fact, the Victorians placed considerable faith in taxonomy, of all things been related in a systemic manner, something that the book mentions with regard to Marx, but which would also have applied to Bentham, Eliot, Darwin and Dickens. While Gödel’s theorem would have been a somewhat alien concept for the Victorian mind, the doctrine of consilence would have been much less so, as it was to be propounded in the Edwardian era, especially by the Logical Positivists. The failure of the Positivists to make a case for this theory goes some way to explaining the sense of unease at the view of history in this novel.

(1) As a side note it is worth noting that while much of this would appear to be akin to John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its alternate endings. However, Fowles is concerned to contrast the attitudes of present day and Victorian society, where Gibson and Sterling allow the two to run together and congeal (Luddism and Marxism appear to merge while Rudwick and Mallory appear to be playing Victorian versions of Dawkins and Gould).

On another literary note, I’m somewhat puzzled by the controversy surrounding Fay Weldon’s decision to accept a fee from a firm of jewellers and include references to them in her book. While it is easy to see that product placement of this kind could be little more than intrusion into a novel, this surely depends on how adept the author proves to be. It is difficult to imagine Fay Weldon being especially clumsy in introducing the references, and she is to be congratulated for having made them a part of her book, rather than leaving them as alien introductions that sit uneasily alongside the rest of the text. As Weldon herself points out this advertising does not seem to be terribly different from artistic patronage as it has been practised from Maecenas to Kreutzer; the idea that literature is a sacrosanct object that transcends such base affairs is naive at best. To borrow a common adage, if literature has a role it is to challenge our perceptions, which, judging from the sound and fury of the discussion, Fay Weldon has succeeded in doing.