Steampunk Flashback: K.W. Jeter's 'Morlock Night' and 'Infernal Devices'
I have a very good memory for books and films and television shows. It's not photographic, and it's not always correct, but it's very good.
So I was surprised when I couldn't remember the plot of "Morlock Night" by K.W. Jeter. I remembered the original paperback cover -- a Morlock, very like the ones in the 1960 film "The Time Machine"-- riding H.G. Wells time machine into a Victorian London street, and I remembered it was some sort of sequel to Wells' tale, as well as one of the first self-styled "steampunk" novels. The plot was completely gone from my memory, though I remembered being disappointed by it.
That was before my rediscovery of steampunk, so when Borders was going out of business and paperbacks were marked down quite a bit, I bought a shiny new copy of the novel with a new, evocative cover.
Now that I've re-read it, I confess I'm still disappointed with it.
Jeter was one of the founders of steampunk, and the one who gave it its name, but his definition of steampunk and mine are different.
First, I think of steampunk as science fiction, not fantasy. Aside from Wells' time machine and a few futuristic weapons (and a couple ancient Atlantean ones), there is no alternative technology, steam-based or otherwise, in "Morlock Night." Instead it has fantasy elements, most notably Merlin, King Arthur as the once and future king who will come to England's aid in times of trouble, and the sword Excalibur. Now I like Arthurian fantasy, and the idea of Arthur appearing outside of his own time is not without interest. I don't particularly like it mixed in with Morlocks, and I definitely don't like it in a purported science fiction novel.
Second, the novel begins immediately after the Time Traveler has told his story, picking up on a mysterious and unnamed individual who Wells describes at the telling. This suggests the book is a direct sequel to "The Time Machine," but it soon goes its own merry way. Within pages, the protagonist has been accosted on the street, given some "tobacco" that seems to transport him some years into the future, after the Morlocks have used Wells' time machine to invade our time.
Third, why would the Morlocks wish to invade our own time? I was never given a satisfactory answer in the book.
Fourth, and most importantly, I found the novel and its lead character mostly boring. The protagonist soon gets a feisty sidekick and possible love interest in the form of a young lady from the near-future time after the Morlocks have taken over the world. I didn't find her terribly interesting either.
If that had been my first exposure to Jeter, it might well have been my last, but I had read a later book first and loved it. "Infernal Devices" was also reissued by Angry Robots (a two-book steampunk reprint series?), and it's both more true steampunk (in my opinion) and a better book besides.
I say the book is steampunk, but my copy of the book calls it a "mad Victorian fantasy," and that fits as well.
The plot involves a Victorian gentleman, the son of a mad, years-ahead-of-his-time inventor, and an intrigue (or many) concerning some of his leftover machines. The son has no similar talent for invention, and can't even maintain or repair the existing ones, but is contacted by several individuals who want him to try. The characters are intriguing (someone referred to as the Brown Leather Man, because his "skin" seems literally to be something akin to old, worn leather), entertaining (a man and woman who speak in slang of our era due to too much time observing the future on one of the father's devices), the situations novel (a unique plan to contact extraterrestrials), and the book is just plain fun. As I said in earlier post, for me, steampunk has to be fun. "Morlock Night" isn't fun; "Infernal Devices" is.