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Literary Sampling and Remixing: Sterling & Gibson’s The Difference Engine

I’ve intended to get around to The Difference Engine for years on end, but never started in on it in earnest until this year, for reasons I can’t explain, really. I’ve had a copy all these years, but never quite gotten around to it. Anyway, I picked up an audiobook edition of the novel using one of my Audible credits, since I’ve been listening to audiobooks a fair bit while walking, or doing chores around the house, and I’m enjoying it immensely.

I remember reading an interview with the authors in Science Fiction Studies many years ago, and being very curious about the method they used to write it, which they referred to as “literary sampling.” That sampling is much more profoundly a part of the book than I realized at first: the novel is, in a sense, a kind of alternate-history remix of Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845), apparently a very political novel of the mid-19th century, with many of the characters having their origin in Disraeli’s book. There’s a good discussion of this by Elisabeth Kraus here. Basically, Sterling and Gibson sort of took the raw materials of Disraeli’s novel, and then forced them through a strainer: a novel about Victorian social injustice caused by class and economics becomes a novel of Victorian social dislocation caused by accelerated change in technology and science.

(In other words, it is kind of a novel of alt-Victorian Future Shock, to use Alvin Toffler’s term–not the first time I’ve noted a Tofflerian influence in Sterling’s work.)

Sterling and Gibson’s method of writing some of the expository material suggests interesting procedures that may be of some use for the drafting of my own book, thought it is set in a much earlier era (specifically, 1736). The following passage is extremely suggestive of a technique I have no tried before:

WG: Well, I would recommend it for its technique of literary sampling. I think we applied word-processing technology to a traditional process of plagiarism and did something really new because a great deal of the intimate texture of this book derives from the fact that it’s an enormous collage of little pieces of forgotten Victorian textual material which we lifted from Victorian journalism, from Victorian pulp literature. We lifted a lot of sensation novels, particularly the novels of Mary Braddon, who wrote the Neuromancer of Victorian sensation novels, Lady Audley’s Secret. There are pieces of Lady Audley’s Secret embedded brazenly in our text. Virtually all of the interior descriptions, the descriptions of furnishings, are simply descriptive sections lifted from Victorian literature. Then we worked it, we sort of air-brushed it with the word-processor, we bent it slightly, and brought out eerie blue notes that the original writers could not have. It’s sort of like Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner”; that was really a lot of fun to do.

BS: You can get quite extraordinary effects from using a piece of Victorian text verbatim and then deliberately forgetting where you got it and rewriting it four or five times [laughter]. The effect is quite extraordinary because it still carries a bizarre kind of authenticity, but after it’s been filtered four or five times, it’s like its bones melt but the skin and hide are still on it.

WG: So you give it eight legs and send it back out on the street.

BS: Yeah, we sort of deboned Victoriana and gave it a new skeleton and a different set, but it still smells the same. And if you sort of pat it with your eyes closed, it still feels the same.

That sounds like something worth experimenting, though of course, it highly dependent on what you’re trying to do. For example, stories set in the Middle Ages will need to be told in verse if you’re really determined to do this: you do get lots of useful details in medieval English poetry, but certainly not highly detailed descriptions of  the kind we find in Victorian novels. Still, I’m curious enough to try experimenting with this kind of sampling and remixing in my own ongoing project… if it’s possible.

But so far, unfortunately, the texts from the 1730s-1750s that I’ve been reading lately–pamphlets like Fielding’s The Female Husband, and novels such as Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and a book I’ve just returned to after leaving it sit, about halfway finished, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (and, I expect, his Robinson Crusoe, which I’ll revisit eventually, I suppose)–seem rather different from Victorian novels in style: for one thing, I find a lot less detailed set-description expository material, and a lot more run-on dialog and action; unfortunately, I’m more interested in sampling exposition than dialog or action, since I feel like right now I can fake a pretty decent remix of early-Georgian dialog that is easily read by a modern reader. (I certainly don’t remember much in any of the Jonathan Swift novels I read ages ago, though maybe I should give them a second look, just in case.)

In any case, I’m obviously on the hunt for other texts to check out. I read half of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and found that was enough, really; the book is at least less dialog heavy, but the exposition that it does have is almost focused on sex: it’s also basically the mid-century Georgian smut, so… beyond one or two scenes at the most, I will have little occasion to sample from that.

Happily, a quick look gives the impression that Fielding’s Tom Jones is a promising if limited resource (and suggest that other Fielding novels might yield useful material), though I’m only about 5% of the way into the book. I’d like to see some other, more rough-edged stuff too, the kind of thing parallel to Hogarth’s engravings, which means I’ll need to do more research, I suppose. (I’m starting to doubt there’s going to be much exposition in the rougher, cheaper books, though: that seems to be a more luxurious literary affectation.) One book I’m reluctant to attempt to dive into at the moment, but which I probably should examine, is Richardson’s massive (970,000 words long!) Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady. (Though Clarissa is an epistolary novel, so maybe it won’t have such stuff as I’m hunting anyway. I simply don’t know.)

Suggestions by those who know better are welcome in the comments section, especially of any writers from prior to 1750 of a descriptive bent, or books by modern authors who have set narratives in the 1730s, too: anything that seems likely to be useful grist for my period-setting mill is good news for me; while I’m getting comfortable with the level of science, technology, brewing industrialization, and general slumminess of London at the time, the concrete details are, for me, still something of a void to be filled in. There’s still some time for me to internalize more of that, as I’m only just at the climax of the book (in terms of plotting and a detailed outline), and I still need to work out the denouement and conclusion.

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