“This is a hectic masterpiece,” says Adam Roberts in his afterword to K.W. Jeter’s 1979 genre-bending science fiction romp, Morlock Night. Written as a sequel to H.G. Wells 1895 classic (and precursor to every time travel novel or story written or devised since) The Time Machine, the world of Morlock Night is held by many to be the quintessence of science fiction’s attempt to remake history. And Jeter is deified by a certain stripe of science fiction cognoscenti for his coining of the term “steampunk,” a genre in which he and two friends, Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock, had been writing since the end of the 1970s.
In my youth, I loved The Time Machine, both in book form and in the slightly camp but mostly wonderful 1960 version starring Rod Taylor (with the most gorgeous Time Machine prop ever constructed). I did not, however, love it as much as the older boy over the road, who devoured the books of Wells, then started a Wells club which I couldn’t join because I couldn’t pass the entrance quiz (as a point of fact, I don’t think he ever had any other members). That boy eventually grew up and became a right wing conservative guitarist for several wholly miserable-sounding death metal bands (I wish I were making this up); for all I know, every one of their songs is about Wells and his views on society, but I can’t get past the wall of horrible noise. But my love for Wells was sufficient for a lifetime, I thought; I’ve read most of his major works, and a number of his short stories.
At about the time that I was first reading The Time Machine, a man in California was setting down his copy of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (perhaps in the four-volume 1968 Dover Books edition?) and deciding that he had a whale of a notion. The man was K.W. Jeter, and the notion? You’ve guessed it: a sequel to The Time Machine. While I’ve been a fan of Wells for years, and probably heard of Morlock Night before now, it was only quite recently that it impinged on my consciousness to the point that I thought “I should really find a copy of that.” As it happened, quite recently, I did. And it is an interesting book, but… unfortunately, I can only half-agree with Roberts’ sentiment. Before you ask, the word I’m quibbling with is not “hectic.”
The careening pace of Morlock Night takes the reader through several key points in a delightfully convoluted narrative, beginning immediately after the end of The Time Machine. Of the men who heard the Time Traveller’s tale, the quiet, shy man who never opened his mouth is identified as Edwin Hocker, a sort of Victorian gentleman of independent means. Hockers finds himself walking away from the evening with the Time Traveller in the company of a man who identifies himself as Dr. Ambrose. They fall into conversation, and Hocker suspects that he is in the company of a madman, but soon he has bigger problems. Having fallen into a waking dream, he finds himself in the nightmare landscape of a destroyed future London, a victim of a successful assault by the Morlocks first encountered by the Time Traveller in The Time Machine. The world has fallen to the weapons of the Morlocks, and humanity is about to be extinguished in the East End of London.
Here we are catapulted into a tale which is clearly meant to befuddle and stun the reader with its novelty. Hocker and his companion, a mannish warrior girl called Tafe, are rescued by Dr. Ambrose and taken into his confidence; he is in reality Merlin, and Arthur, the Excalibur-wielding King of pre-Norman legend, who will be needed to slay the Morlocks before they can invade London, as he is the ultimate protector of England (and, by extension, the world). Unfortunately for their plans, Arthur is being held captive by Dr. Merdenne (the alias of a villain who should not be named, an ancient enemy of Arthur and Merlin), who hopes to prevent Arthur from defeating the Morlocks, who Merdenne is aiding (for reasons which are unclear at the moment). To defeat the Morlocks, Hocker and Tafe must free Arthur.
Seems straightforward? Well, Jeter has something to say about that. Excalibur is the source of Arthur’s power, but the fabled sword has been weakened by having other versions of the sword removed from other points in its time-line by use of the Time Machine – effectively draining its power. Hocker and Tafe must enlist the help of a veteran tosher to search not only for the place where the Morlocks have built their advance base, but where Excalibur has been hidden (a now-extinct profession, toshers used to scavenger the vast system of sewers and drainages built by Bazalgette around London for valuables literally flushed away by those above ground). The discursion on the employments of London’s less-fortunate in the 19th Century is surely due directly to Mayhew’s book (Tim Powers says as much in his introduction), but the wildly careening plot is all down to Jeter.
At this point, Morlock Night takes a sharp turn into the realms of baroque fantasy. The tosher Tom Clagger leads Hocker and Tafe in the direction of the mythical Grand Tosh, a sort of Sargasso Sea in which the most valuable agglomerations of treasure from the overworld are to be found. There, they expect to find Excalibur. What they find instead is a vast sea under London itself, inhabited by a submarine left over from the long ago pre-Celtic civilisation of – wait for it – Atlantis.
It is as though Jeter has never heard the expression, “over-egging the pudding:” literally, putting too much into something. By adding Atlantean submarines to the mix, he might be said to have overdone things. But when he sends Hocker and Tafe into the nest of Morlocks in a desperate gambit to retrieve the other copies of the sword, and swoops them all into the future, things have just gone too far. And the final revelations, which I’ll leave out of this review, take a step or two just beyond “too far.”
Does all this leave you wondering? Well, it did me too. Here are some questions, then:
- If the Time Machine is required to pass through time, then how does Dr. Ambrose send Hocker into the future London to meet Tafe?
- If Hocker’s future sojourn is only a dream brought on by some sort of opiate, then how does Tafe come back with him (as she is definitely described as a creature of the future)?
- How does Ambrose take Merdenne to “the end of time” to continue their game of chess and keep both away from the battle to recover Excalibur?
- If the Time Machine creates a “furrow” in time between 1892 and 826,715, how is it used to find earlier incarnations of Excalibur to weaken the 1892 version?
- Why, when the Morlocks remove their three other swords from 1892 to their secure future 824,000 years later, does Excalibur not immediately regain its powers? If anything, it should be more powerful, if temporal proximity is the limiting factor: the clone swords have gone from being at most 1,500 years away to more than 500 times that temporal remove!
In addition… I hate to be that reader, but someone should say it: a Victorian gentleman of Hocker’s class would not say “bloody.” In some circles, it’s considered a rude locution even to this day, and certainly would not have been casually spoken by an Englishman of Hocker’s demeanour, and definitely not in front of a lady doing her best George Sand impression. In fact, Hocker’s speech is all over the place, although Tafe gives away her origins in a different time with her rough and ready speech, it’s all just a bit off.
And the Morlocks… somehow, in having that “officer class” of Morlocks who speak in Jeter’s pastiche of the English upper class, they lose much of the terror that they inspired in Wells’ original. Apart from one casual remark about how the Morlocks are “meant” to rule the past as well as the future, we have no indication of the perverse philosophy which drives them. True terror, to my mind, comes from the unreasoning fear of an enemy which operates to a completely different set of cultural rules and standards (like how whales must view humans, for example: as an implacable, technologically terrifying enemy, who slaughter unreasoningly and dispassionately). Here, we are just faced with Morlocks who for some reason feel that their need for lebensraum extends all the way to the 19th century. It’s a ridiculous notion, a logistical nightmare, and it simply doesn’t provide adequate motivation, to my mind.
Don’t get me wrong: read on a certain level, Morlock Night is fun and entertaining, and there are some ideas here which have clearly been nicked by other, less-deserving writers. But it’s not the book I was hoping for, namely, an undiscovered-by-me masterpiece. While it does set an all-comers world-beating record for dumping the most baggage into a single volume that I can think of, in doing so the story falls slightly flat. There are other compelling continuations to Wells’ landmark work which make a far better use of the landscape (Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships springs to mind), and many better stories overall. So read Morlock Night for what it is, without expectations of greatness, and you likely won’t be disappointed. But whatever you do, if you haven’t already, go and read The Time Machine first. Three of five stars.
Reviewed 7 October 2015.
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