In case you weren’t already aware, K. W. Jeter was the first person to put the word Steampunk into print. You can find out more about that story here.
Morlock Night was released in 1979 and asks the question “What happened after the events of The Time Machine?” H. G. Wells’ classic tale is told through the vehicle of a dinner party being held by a man known only as “the time traveler.” Jeter’s story picks up right as the party has broken up for the night and the guests are wending their dreary ways home through the London fog.
One of the guests, a Mr. Edwin Hocker, shares his walk and his skepticism with another guest, the mysterious Dr. Ambrose. Hocker is appalled by the turn their conversation takes and finally extricates himself from Ambrose’s company only to be thrown into a nightmare version of his beloved London far in the future. In this world he is confronted by a scenario where the Morlocks, our subterranean future selves, have taken control of the time machine and have invaded the year 1892.
Thankfully this future can still be prevented, and with the guidance of Ambrose, who by the way is the wizard Merlin, Hocker and his compatriot from the future, Tafe, are sent on a series of quests. First, the reincarnation of King Arthur needs to be found and freed from Merlin’s nemesis, Merdenne. But the aging king is in failing health, a condition that can only be stopped by the magical sword Excalibur, the power of which has been diminished through the machinations of Merdenne and his use of the Time Machine.
But even more dire than the ensuing Morlock invasion is the rift in time itself, which is slowly undoing the universe. If Hocker cannot succeed all is lost for not just the human race, but the entirety of existence.
I always enjoy a story with imagination, and Morlock Night certainly fits the bill. Jeter constructs a story that includes Arthurian folklore, Atlantian technology and the time travel paradox that is seen through the eyes of a Victorian gentleman. There was a lot of flag waving for England, but many of Hocker’s biases about class and gender are confronted and changed, which adds the weight of social commentary to a fun story. The combination of disparate elements such as the Morlocks and a submarine stolen from the former residents of Atlantis reminds me of epic tales like Verne’s Mysterious Island, so as long as you go in expecting to suspend your disbelief Morlock Night has a lot to offer.
But, a bit of criticism about the ending. I had already guessed the twist so I was gearing up for an epic climax and was disappointed. The final good vs. evil happens in only a few pages. It felt like Jeter was under deadline or something and just had to wrap it up quick. I am reading his other two steampunk books, Infernal Devices and Fiendish Schemes, and I hope they get to come fully to fruition.
For a complete list of K.W. Jeter’s works, click here.
First, some fun facts and context
- H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and his sci-fi classic of course predate the word “steampunk.” It even predates the term “science fiction.” In his own time, works like the Time Machine were called “scientific romances.” I believe it should be considered steampunk because it is a look into a futuristic past that never was, which means it is rife with possibilities for reinterpretation (like K. W. Jeter’s Morlock Nights) and the description of the machine itself has a definite steampunk gestalt due to the time period in which it was written. I wasn’t able to find any images of the machine from the original 1949 teleplay, but it is easy to find images and models of the iteration used in the 1960 film (pictured below).
- The book was actually published first as a serial novella in a magazine in 1895, and Wells received $100 upon completion. In the original serial Wells’ editor insisted on an extra stop in time and different type of human. This section was dropped when the whole story was compiled into a book, but you can still read the missing text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Grey_Man
- This story was the first time the term “time machine” was ever used, but not the first story Wells wrote about time travel. He published a short story 7 years earlier entitled The Chronic Argonauts. (You can read the full text at a variety of places on the web because in the USA it is no longer under copyright. For instance, http://www.colemanzone.com/Time_Machine_Project/chronic.htm,)
- Novels too wordy? You have several visual adaptations to choose from. A faithful feature film was made in 1960, a reinterpretation starring Guy Pierce in 2002 and it has also been reproduced as a graphic novel by Terry Davis.
Synopsis: The main character, only ever referred to by the narrator as “the Time Traveler,” explains to a group containing enthusiasts and skeptics in equal measure that time is the fourth dimension and he has engineered a way to travel through it. After showing them a demonstration using a model of his machine, he invites his guests to return in one week at which time he promises proof of his claim. A week later the others have all assembled around the Time Traveler’s table but the host is nowhere to be seen. He soon stumbles in ragged and distressed, and tells them of his harrowing adventure into the year 802,701 A.D. (influenced in no small part part Wells’ own socialist leanings) where humans have split into two distinct species. He first meets the gentle and incurious Eloi, what he later comes to think of as the heirs to an artistocratic past that removed the challenges of survival and therefore the need for intelligence. Like cattle, they are simultaneously provided for and consumed by Morlocks, who live a subterranean existence and continue to work on mysterious machinery in total darkness deep under the earth.
The Time Traveler’s journey takes him across the future landscape of Surrey which includes huge decaying structures like a museum (a metaphorical time machine allowing a glimpse into the past while the scientific ingenuity of his present brought him forward) covered with writing that can no longer be understood by the inhabitants of this new world. He also makes a friend in the form of an Eloi female named Weena, whom the Time Traveler rescues from drowning early on in his trip, but later loses her life because of his exploits. After he escapes from 802,701, he heads further into the future and encounters the red giant the sun has become and a rapidly cooling landscape void of any animal life but elephant-sized crabs.
Upon his return he tells his tale to his assembled guests, none of whom seem to believe him. The narrator wakes the next morning and feels the need to discuss the journey further, and arrives to find the Time Traveler about to embark on another sojourn in search of proof. He asks the narrator to wait for half an hour and all will be illuminated, but three years later he has not returned. In the epilogue, the narrator speculates about where the Time Traveler has gone and if he will ever return. He revisits the Time Traveler’s interpretation of his first journey, namely that the human race will completely devolve and his lamentation over the loss of intellect, but himself is heartened by the descriptions of tenderness and friendship between the Time Traveler and Weena.