The best science fiction is protean by nature, combining facets of just about every other genre and defying neat classification within the bounds of SFdom. K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night straddles many sub-genre fences: Victoriana secret history, steampunk, and Arthurian legend. Originally published in 1979, the book is judged one of the progenitors of the steampunk sub-genre, and its author as credited with inventing the steampunk label (in a 1987 letter to Locus). Having heard of the book but never read it, I was jazzed to read the new edition from Angry Robot. I was especially curious to see how one of the earliest steampunk novels compares against contemporary clockwork fare, and I am happy to report that thirty-two years from its initial publication Morlock Night remains an enthralling, atmospheric, and fast-paced read.
Morlock Night was originally written as part of a ten book Arthurian series which was to be written by Jeter, Tim Powers, and Ray Nelson (alas, the series never took off). The concept was to show King Arthur reincarnated (or awoken) at various points throughout history when Britain needs saving. This fact is intrinsic to Morlock Night, and at one level firmly sets the book in the Arthurian tradition. However, Jeter’s execution of this concept is unique and exceptional.
The book takes place in London in the autumn of the Victorian era. Like the best contemporary steampunk and alternate history authors (e.g. Cherie Priest or Michael A. Stackpole), Jeter uses voice to establish his character’s in time. The story is told in first-person perspective through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, and his word choices and sentence constructions are firmly rooted in the cadences of the late Victorian era. In the hands of a lesser author, such vocal tricks might make the prose dated or stilted to modern sensibilities. Perhaps, if Jeter had chosen to employ third-person perspective, that might well have been the case. But by choosing to tell the story through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, the story gains immediacy in spite of the distancing typical of late Victorian writing styles.
We meet the questing hero as he departs from a dinner party. At this dinner party, Hocker was regaled with an incredible story about travel to the far distant future, and the strange creatures his host encountered on the way. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it should: Morlock Night is actually a sequel to H.G. Wells The Time Machine (which itself was first published in 1895, three years after the events of Jeter’s book).
Jeter builds much more immediacy into his story by eschewing the framing narrative that Wells employed. We meet Edwin Hocker as he departs the dinner party that frames Wells’ classic, and our hero is then swiftly sent by the mysterious Doctor Ambrose (Merlin) to a war-torn future London where he must fight and flee Morlock invaders sweeping across time to take over the world. Jeter does an amazing job establishing the setting for the story. The first chapter takes place on the foggy streets of London, late at night, after the close of the dinner party. Jeter’s narration is atmospheric – literally, and figuratively – and the fog gradually seeps into both his character’s perception and the reader’s. The brooding city streets, the hazy lights gas lamps, the damp: these are elements that one feels reading the book. When Hocker is thrust into the future, the rubble-strewn London he finds himself in remains recognizable, though shattered as if by the Blitz.
Ambrose pulls Hocker (and a woman he meets in that war-torn London) back to the Victorian era, and uses the traumatic experience to convince Hocker to save Britain. Ambrose explains that the dim-witted Morlocks described in The Time Machine were but the Morlock’s uneducated working class, and that when Wells’ Time Traveller returned to the future following the dinner party, the ruling Morlocks captured him, and used the time machine to travel back to 1892. Now, with the aid of an Anti-Merlin character, the Morlocks intend to conquer the past. And this risks unraveling time and destroying the universe. To save the day, Merlin needs Hocker to free the reincarnation of King Arthur from the clutches of that Anti-Merlin, and to reunite the reincarnated king with the scattered pieces of Excalibur.
The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with a standard quest-based structure: step one, step two, complication, step three, complication, climax. But despite the prosaic structure, the characterization, world-building, and pacing make the book a delight to read. The quest for Excalibur takes Hocker into the sewers beneath London, and Jeter’s descriptions of this dark and dank environment are by turns chilling, thrilling, and fascinating. Loving the real London as much as I do, I can easily imagine the detritus of two thousand years washing up beneath London’s twisting alleyways.
It is in those subterranean environments that Jeter comes closest to employing the tropes of the modern steampunk movement. Looked at from the perspective of a modern reader, Morlock Night has a notable dearth of steampunk conventions. There is little (if any) real clockwork, no steam-powered machinery that I can recall, and certainly no airships. The closest approximation is an ancient Atlantean submarine which figures prominently in Hocker’s adventures in the London sewers. But that is a strange, foreign, and ancient technology: neither a product of the Victorian era, nor an extrapolation of Victorian-era technology.
Jeter doesn’t use the steoretypical steampunk devices because the story simply does not need them: it is centered around the character of Edwin Hocker, and the challenges he faces. Technology is incidental to that, and so Jeter wastes no time lovingly describing it. And despite the lack of steampunk window dressing, the book remains undeniably steampunk. In many ways, it is the quintessential steampunk novel: every element – including technology – is seen through the eyes of a late Victorian-era narrator, with the concomitant sensibilities, values, and preconceived notions. That grounds the book in the Victorian era, and conveys that undeniable feeling of almost-plausibility that is characteristic of the best steampunk. At the same time, Jeter’s careful attention to setting, and the atmospheric, layered descriptions root the story firmly in the London of 1892.
Despite its many strengths, the book does have two weaknesses. The first (minor) weakness is that I found the end of the story a bit predictable. That might be because I’ve read plot structures like this one many times over, or it might be because Jeter’s careful foreshadowing built a certain inevitability into the story. However, the book’s predictability is only a minor weakness; even if I was able to guess how it ended, I still loved the ride. The tension remained high, and I continued to be avidly engaged in the story long after I’d figured out the end. That fact is a testament to Jeter’s excellent management of pacing and tension.
The second weakness I consider more substantial. Early in the book, Hocker meets a woman named Tafe in the war-torn future version of London. She returns with him to his own time, and proceeds to be his companion on his various adventures. She represents Hocker’s love interest (of sorts), and a device for furthering plot and motivation in certain key scenes. When we first meet Tafe, she is in charge: much more strong-willed and competent than our hero, Hocker. But as the book progresses and Hocker takes the fore, Tafe recedes. I was disappointed by this perceived weakening of the character. I understand why it happened, and I understand why it might even have been necessary. But I would have preferred it if Tafe continued to have the strength of character and personality that she had initially.
On the whole, I am inordinately pleased that Angry Robot has reprinted Morlock Night. I especially enjoyed Tim Powers’ introduction and the afterward by Adam Roberts’. For fans of genre history, I recommend reading both essays as they provide valuable perspective on the significance of Jeter’s book. As for the book itself, I consider Morlock Night a must-read for any fan of steampunk. Three decades after its initial publication, it continues to be an excellent, enjoyable, fast-paced story. Fans of Cherie Priest, George Mann, and Gail Carriger will find much to love.