Thursday, October 4, 2012

Proto-Steampunk: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells opened up a world of possibility, both narratively and generically. One of the establishing texts of science fiction as a genre, it still has power, and still fires imaginations. Not only did it help inspire a genre, it also inspired sequels by other authors, some long decades after it was first published. Morlock Night is one of those sequels. First published in 1979, it presages the Steampunk genre, though it's not quite Steampunk itself. Jeter himself is credited with coining the term, so this book's role in the development of that genre is obvious.

K.W. Jeter's book is an immediate sequel to The Time Machine, the action starting as Wells' book ends and the time traveler's guests disperse into the night. The protagonist of Morlock Night is one of those guests, mentioned and described in the narrative in passing. Jeter doesn't delay the proceedings; his protagonist is quickly plunged into a nightmarish adventure instigated by a mysterious and sinister man, happened upon in a night-cloaked street.

The pacing is brisk, to say the least. The protagonist - Jeter does decide to give him a proper name, Edwin Hocker, unlike Wells, who chose to keep his hero anonymous - finds himself descending without warning into a hellish landscape. His bewilderment keeps him off-balance through a good bit of the book, though his resilience and bluster combine to carry him through. The story rarely slows down, and Hocker finds himself falling from frying pan into a succession of fires, rarely able to catch his balance.

As you might guess from the title, the Morlocks of Wells' dystopic future figure into the plot. Jeter takes a few logical liberties with the degenerate descendants of humans, otherwise he might not have had much of a story. I don't think this jibes too well with Wells' vision of the creatures, but it's a fun interpretation.

Jeter conjures up three different Londons, the Victorian metropolis of Wells, an embattled ruin decades later, and the idyllic parkland the original Time Traveller found in his foray deep into the distant future. His Victorian London is the most fully realized, but much of the action takes place under it.

From here on, there will be spoilers.

I was surprised that Jeter brought Arthurian legend into the narrative. There's nothing wrong with that, it just wasn't the direction I expected the story to go in. There is a cleverness to his concept of Excalibur being a "sum total," so that when Merdenne - the evil counterpart/twin/dark side to Merlin, called Dr. Ambrose here - steals the sword from three different points in time, each sword is only a quarter of the original blade's power. It's an ingenious plot driver.

Merlin/Dr. Ambrose and Merdenne remain ciphers, which seems fitting for wizards. I got the feeling this was a brief glimpse into an age-old game of cat-and-mouse and one-upsmanship, where the balance of power has shifted countless times.

Jeter's use of the trope of Arthur as the hero for England who appears at need is familiar and touching. This treatment of the concept reminds me a lot of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion. If you like this book, then you might want to look into Moorcock's bibliography. The concept isn't unique to Moorcock, of course, but I think he has to be the author who's dealt with it more extensively than any other writer you could care to name.

There are problems with the book that may not be problems to some. The brevity of the book and the speed of the plot leaves a lot undeveloped. Perhaps the most glaring example is when Hocker acquires an ally in the ruined London he visits early in the book, a woman named Tafe. She is left undeveloped as a character, though she accompanies him through all his adventures. She never quite comes to life, in my opinion. The Morlocks are left only partly developed, also, and Jeter seems to portray them as something like World War II-era German military personnel with the sensibilities of the Three Stooges. That portrayal goes a bit too far afield from Wells' creations for my taste, but in such a brief book Jeter used broad strokes to paint his characters.

There are other, more prosaic, problems with the book. Foremost to me is that the book is riddled with typos. That's not Jeter's fault, of course, and it mars what is otherwise a handsome paperback.

There are a number of nifty details that Jeter uses to give texture to his book. The toshers, the folk who delve into London's ancient, labyrinthine sewer system, are a fascinating bit of history. The toshes they seek are caches of valuables deposited in nooks and crevices of the underworld, with the Grand Tosh being the semi-mythical, but ever-elusive (and illusive, perhaps) conglomeration of treasures from across the ages. The Lost Coin Kingdom is an evocative name for another legendary bit of the tapestry of the sewers, a civilization of subterranean dwellers who may be an uncomfortable glimpse into the future. I wonder if it may be a reference to the Parable of the Lost Coin, though, if it is, it's a little beyond me. Plus, Jeter almost casually tosses in tantalizing references to Atlantis. All these bits and pieces left me wanting to know more.

 Overall, this is a fun, though slight, book. It covers a lot of ground, and is a bit of whirlwind of colorful detail. It's surprisingly somber at the end, and my lingering impression is that it is a sliver of a larger story, a brief moment in a much bigger tale, caught for a moment like a tableau in a flash of lightning. I was left wanting more, and that's a good thing.

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