Review: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter (1979)

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
Angry Robot, 1979 (orig)

Rating: B+

It seems an incomplete picture of what steampunk is if one does not at least mention the earliest works. Although Homunculus didn’t turn out to be as enjoyable a read as one would hope, K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night pretty much was exactly what anyone could hope for when it comes to excellence in the earliest days of the steampunk sci-fi movement. It is worth mentioning that Jeter is also responsible for The Glass Hammer, a cyberpunk novel of such quality that it is second only to the first two books of William Gibson’s original Sprawl trilogy, and ought to be thought of as a classic of that subgenre.

Morlock Night is not the first The Time Machine sequel written by someone else, but is one of the better known ones. The basic idea is that one of the attendants of the party in which the Time Traveler told the story of his adventures to the future is having a chat with a man named Dr. Ambrose about whether or not the story is actually true, and by the time he gets home he finds himself thrust into a London that has been taken over by the Morlocks of the future, who appear to have stolen the Time Traveler’s machine.

In many ways, Morlock Night is a standard fantasy romp. The narrator has to find various copies of Excalibur and put them together to restore the legendary sword to power, and give it to a reincarnation of King Arthur so that he may drive the evil from England and save the world from the Morlocks. Jeter writes absolutely brilliantly, though, and the author captures the narrative voice of Wells so perfectly that if one were told this was written in the late 19th century, it would be hard to doubt. Comparing it to his other works, it is quite remarkable how well Jeter manages to change his writing style to fit the mood of the piece without it feeling hackneyed. He has dabbled in everything from cyberpunk to Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins and otherwise, so at the very least he is a diverse writer.

To compound the good points of Jeter’s writing overall, his characters are really compelling. The narrator (Edwin Hocker) is a sympathetic character that is very easy to like, and the woman Tafe who accompanies him throughout is a perfect steampunk heroine who frequently kicks ass and takes names. Dr. Ambrose is similarly interesting; there is really nothing bad to say about any of the writing or character development at all. This novel is really gripping early on and only gets better as it goes on. Perhaps the overall plot was a little simplistic, but it was still deeply enjoyable.

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Getting Steampunk Out of the Closet

Today's version of steampunk.

It has been a few years now since steampunk made the jump from quiet subgenre of sci-fi to the new “it” thing in speculative fiction. Much in the way of the grunge music movement went from metal and punk influenced alternative rock to $99.95 for a flannel shirt, steampunk has quickly transitioned from Victorian adventure crossed with steam technology to goggles as an accessory to corsets. Novels like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, and Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan show that the genre is capable of greatness (or at least pure enjoyment), but the genre has been flung far from its roots; chances are that most steampunk fans have never even heard of K.W. Jeter, let alone actually read Morlock Night or Infernal Devices.

The origins of steampunk are basically just a modern manifestation of the aesethetic of science fiction that was actually written during the Victorian era, specifically the works of H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) and Jules Verne (Around the World in Eighty Days). Writers like Jeter and James Blaylock started writing stories with similar elements in the late 1970s and early 80s, with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling doing a similar thing a bit later in The Difference Engine. More recently, there have been basically two kinds of steampunk that pretty much cover 95% of the genre: purist steampunk set in Victorian England, and more western steampunk set in the same era but in America instead. Boneshaker would fall under this heading, and the television show Firefly definitely has an “Old West” steampunk feel (despite being set in the future).  It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused the crossover from minor interest of sci-fi fans to full on mainstream obsession, but the literary aspect of steampunk has really become an afterthought.

How does the genre move forward? By reminding the general population that it is not just a dress up game. Writers appearing dressed in Victorian clothing in their bio photos is all well and good, but is it really necessary? Publishers like Tor are doing a good job of pushing their steampunk lines, but it seems that the only course of action is a sort of literary steampunk evangelism; if you see someone tweeting or posting about how much they love steampunk, challenge them on the books. “Have you read Boneshaker? What about Homunculus? Oh really? Then do I have a treat for you…”