Other People’s Morlocks: K.W. Jeter, Morlock Night

When people ask me questions–well, they’re usually saying “WTF is wrong with you!?!”, or other stuff that’s hard to answer without graphs and complex math. But they sometimes ask me where I got the idea for my character Morlock Ambrosius.

When they do, I virtually always say some version of what I said to Howard A. Jones a few years ago on the Blog Gate:

The trigger for [Morlock’s] genesis was reading H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. I enjoyed it, but felt that Wells was not really giving the Morlocks a fair shake, much as Tolkien, in his depiction of Middle Earth, arbitrarily made Dwarves inferior to his favorites, the Elves. (Don’t get me started about Elves.) At the same time, some of the Arthurian stuff I was reading was full of names that sounded like Morlock (Morgan, Morgause, Mordred, Morholt). All these elements became connected in my mind, producing this Morlock Ambrosius guy, who was connected somehow both to Dwarves and to Arthurian legend.

This is true, as far as it goes, but it may be incomplete. Someone (I wish I could remember who) pointed out to me that there was a book called Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter that holds a non-trivial place in genre history. Jeter himself is the guy who coined the term steampunk, and Morlock Night (1979) has been widely acclaimed as the leading edge of the first wave of steampunk, a subgenre that’s now swelled into a tsunami so vast it may, before it’s through, dampen all our velvet smoking jackets. More importantly, from the Morlockocentric point of view, Morlock Night mixed Wells’ Morlocks with Arthurian mythology. It seems like Jeter’s book might be the missing link in the evolutionary chain of Morlock Ambrosius. I don’t remember reading it, and I’m pretty sure I would remember reading it, but I may have seen it on bookracks or read reviews of it.

I’ve felt for a while that I should read Morlock Night. But it’s been out of print for a long time, and I didn’t want to pay the prices I saw for used editions. (The fact that it might be on the shelves of a nearby library is something that never occurred to me until five minutes ago. But we’ll pretend that it isn’t, so that I seem like less of a doorknob.) Recently Angry Robot books reprinted it in a new edition which (a.) is incredibly beautiful, with a wonderful cover-painting and design, (b.) sports an introduction by Tim Powers, Jeter’s friend and co-founder of steampunk, and (c.) boasts an afterword by academic and sf writer Adam Roberts. How can it go wrong?

Well. Ahem. I’d feel like a better, more generous person if I could stand up straight and tell you that Morlock Night is one of the world’s fifteen best things. Instead I guess I’ll just slouch here and mutter that the book is not too good. Interesting, no doubt, but not something I can recommend.

My cruel and spoiler-laden review after the jump.


People who like this book (and they are many) describe it as a “romp” or something like that. In the words of the prophets, “just repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show; I should really just relax.'”

There’s something to that: not everything has to be realistic slice-of-a-boring-life fiction or “mundane SF”. Some stories are just rollercoaster rides. Maybe they don’t really go anywhere, but the ride is fun.

But the thing is about any rollercoaster ride: someone has to care about the dull details that don’t concern the riders. Someone has to tighten the bolts, grease the wheels, do the work on design and maintenance. Otherwise the thing falls apart. Morlock Night falls apart and I found the ride unpleasant.

The premise is intriguing. The book is a sequel to Wells’ Time Machine. After the Time Traveller’s return to the future, the Morlocks kill him, take his machine and proceed to invade the past. Merlin Ambrosius was one of the guests at the supper where the Time Traveller told his tale, and he recruits another guest, the narrator-hero, to fight against this posthuman threat from the future. This is the elevator-pitch for a brilliant novel, which Morlock Night unfortunately fails to become.

Vee (for Venetta) Uye runs the steampunk blog Retrospeculation. Her not-unsympathetic but essentially negative review of Morlock Night is worth reading. She puts a shrewd finger on a number of different problems, especially the crucial one of time travel.

…at the novel’s start, Merlin is able to transport Hocker to different moments in time. Later on, when travel to the past is necessary, it is claimed that only the Time Machine can facilitate such movement, although it has also been stated by Merlin that the Time Machine is can only move between Hocker’s present and the future time of the Morlocks. Head spinning.

There’s also the question of the book’s Anglophilia, which becomes so intense as to verge on racism. “There is a certain spiritual power inherent in the English blood and soil,” Merlin says at one point to the hero. “An embodiment of the highest Western values.” Later he adds, “King Arthur is reborn every generation to intercede against the direst threat facing the cherished Christian and human ideals that are embodied in England more than any other place.” God, it seems, really is an Englishman.

Jeter’s Merlin is not Jeter, of course, but this chauvinistic breathy reverence towards England and the English is not really problematized in the book. The hero (who will turn out to be that generation’s King Arthur; don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming) clearly shares this ethnocentric view. Here he is talking of the Morlocks who’ve captured him: “The whole race of them being of an excitable and unrestrained nature, similar to the natives of southern Europe in contrast to the more restrained British…” Later he describes a superior type of Morlock possessing “a higher forehead and thinner lips and nose.” Thick lips sink ships, I guess, and you can’t really be a superior person with a broad nose if you know what I mean.

Jeter may be holding up a certain type of 19th C. person without asking us to admire him: if Jeter is not Jeter’s Merlin, neither does Jeter equal Jeter’s Arthur. I’m not indicting Jeter for crimes against the people. I’m saying these characters are gross and vile and I wanted them smashed to death with white-hot hammers. This created certain barriers to sympathy for said characters.

“Enough with your political axe-grinding, Enge (if that is your real name)!” I hear you scream. “What I want is a Good Story and I don’t care if it is Politically Correct.”

Okay: I’m with you. The trouble is, this story is awful. It’s thick with exposition: someone is always stopping to explain something for thirty pages or so. The time hopping, as VU notes above, makes no sense whatsoever. The skeletal plot, once it develops, has the hero finding four versions of Excalibur so that they can be united into the weapon that can defeat the Bad People. Once the plot-coupons are acquired, the hero realizes who he is and wanders off to defeat the Bad People in a page and a half. (That’s not an exaggeration. In the middle of p. 318 the hero begins his voyage “into the most secret bowels of the earth” and before the end of p. 319 “The just order of the Universe was restored.”) Then the hero dies, of acute dramatic necessity, and the novel ends. This lacks impact.

The book has villain problems, on top of everything else. The big bad is Merdenne, a sort of anti-Merlin who was born to be bad. (If you recognize this name as a version of Myrddin, the Welsh name of Merlin, hold that thought. Hold it firmly. But it won’t help you understand this book.) Merlin gets Merdenne out of the way fairly early and fairly easily.

So Jeter promotes an evil nurse to sit on the dark throne, so that there will still be a big bad. This is meant to be a big shocking reveal toward the end of the book. Instead it’s just confusing. The nurse boasts, “I vowed then… that I would live and take [Merdenne’s] place somehow. And so I have!” That “somehow” is exactly what needed to be narrated for this stuff to matter to this reader. Then the fiendishly cunning monster displays her fiendish cunning, not by killing or torturing the heroes, but instead by tossing them into a prison which also contains the very thing they crossed space and time for, the missing plot-coupon avatar of Excalibur. The magic pony sword takes them back to the time they’d rather be in, for reasons which are wholly inadequate. Problem solved! Thanks, villain!

The big bad is also the Morlock race. (You see what I’m saying about villain problems. The target keeps on moving.) If Merdenne was a pushover, and the evil nurse is the most helpful villain in popular fiction (she did work in a caregiving profession), then Jeter’s Morlocks are the Keystone Kops of steampunk.

Here’s a situation. The hero has been taken prisoner by Morlocks in their submarine deep in the subterranean waters under London. I thought we were getting somewhere here: the fiendishly intelligent worker-Morlocks unleashing their futuristic technological weapons on unsuspecting Victorian England. Right?

Wrong. It’s not their submarine. It was invented by the Atlanteans. The Morlocks don’t even know how to run it. Their idea, if we can say it rises to that level, is to chain the hero to the controls and make him run it for them. They’ve done it before: the corpse of the previous pilot is still cluttering up the place. He painstakingly sharpened a link of his chain until he could slash his veins with it, committing suicide so he wouldn’t have to serve the Morlocks.

The Morlocks are so dumb that, instead of shackling the hero, they take the shackles from the corpse and then reshackle the corpse without realizing it. That is what they do. The hero realizes, after a brief survey of the controls, that he can scuttle the submarine, so he does. The Morlocks flee, leaving the hero (as they suppose) chained to his station. Then the hero escapes and is rescued by his friends who are conveniently at hand.

James Blish (who may not have been Aristotle but who knew bad genre fiction when he saw it) coined the phrase “idiot-plot” for stories like this: they work only because the whole story is staffed by idiots. Even the corpse in this episode is an idiot: if he wanted to commit suicide, he could have scuttled the ship.

“Aha, but the hero, at least, displays shrewd resourcefulness in this episode,” you might say. Well. Sort of. Apparently he’s smarter than the Morlocks but who isn’t? A baked potato could outwit those clowns. But the fact is, our hero voluntarily climbed aboard the submarine, bearing an avatar of Excalibur that he especially didn’t want the Morlocks to have. Why does he do that? To spy on the Morlocks in the sub. Why does he do that? No good reason. In his words, “To what purpose I could put such knowledge, I had no idea.” That, for narrative purposes, is an idiot.

Antagonists as dull-witted as Jeter’s Morlocks couldn’t possibly represent a threat. Heroes as fat-headed as Jeter’s hero don’t command much sympathy. And the plot simply wouldn’t work if anyone behaved with the ordinary shrewdness people would use in, say, doing their laundry.

So: not good. But it does have good stuff in it. The retro-future scenes of London at war with the Morlocks had some merit. The weird London of the sewers (and beneath the sewers) was also intriguing; the Atlantean elements suggested a past almost as deep as Wells’ future. Morlock Night is an early work by Jeter and a lot of it seems slapdash. I didn’t like the book, but it did make me interested in reading more Jeter. With more dash and less slap he might do interesting work indeed.

On the merely Morlockocentric question: I suspect that if I saw Morlock Night back in 1979 it must have annoyed me. Where Wells was unfair to his Morlocks, Jeter is doubly unfair to them and to Wells himself. “Oh, yeah!” I might have shouted (for I was a youth of terse epigrammatic wit) and proceeded to zig where they zagged.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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