The Difference Engine starts off with a fantastic premise: what if Babbage’s ideas turned out to be more than mere ideas? The resulting history brings the information age a century early, complete with mechanical computers, punched cards, and a “clacker” culture. Information wants to be free.
But it also brings oppressive elements. Government and/or corporate dossiers on, well, everybody. My geeky nitpick (perhaps doubly so since I work for a database company) is that at no point is any kind of bulk storage medium described or even posited. How exactly are all these vast databases stored? Punched cards are too labor intensive. It’s pretty straightforward to map logic gates into cogs and gears, but truly massive storage seems to be dependent on magnetic or transistorized technology.
As a side note, as I write this Apple is rumored to be preparing a new line of MacBook Pro laptops that use only SSD (non magnetic, non-spinning) storage, as they already did for the MacBook Air line. The era of magnetic storage is coming to an and, and with it huge disruptions to the everything we think we know about databases, and ultimately computers. Sometimes reality sneaks ahead of science fiction.