Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter

H.G. Wells’ classic, The Time Machine, tells the story of a man who travels through time into the far distant future to find that humanity has evolved into two distinct species: the complacent, placid Eloi and the predatory, cunning Morlocks.  Falling in love with one of the Eloi, the protagonist is successful in recovering his Time Machine and using it to escape back to Victorian England.  But he feels lovesick and depressed without her, and finally uses the Time Machine to travel back to the future to rejoin her and help the Eloi create a new golden age free of the Morlocks’ terror…or so H.G. Wells assumed.

With its intentional emulation of a Victorian writing-style and elaborate machines recalling the dawn of science fiction, Morlock Night, K.W. Jeter’s sequel to The Time Machine, was the novel for which the phrase “steampunk” was invented. Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction rooted in the speculative fiction of the nineteenth century and is distinguished by its use of Victorian-era settings, steam-powered technology, and stylistic elements influenced by nineteenth century writing. Morlock Night’s combination of science fiction and alternate history proved to be a major stylistic influence that codified many aspects of the steampunk genre. Shorter and more action oriented than Wells’ novel, it is dominated by an atmosphere of darkness and suspense and an ironic, knowing wit. 

The narrative winds across time and space but is easy to follow, with a first-person narrator and only a few major characters, and features action scenes recalling Victorian science fiction classics such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and War of the Worlds. Morlock Night is an exciting tale that will thrill fans of classic science fiction and fantasy lovers.

The story begins as Edwin Hocker has a conversation with a mysterious old man in the streets of England, who warns him of dire consequences awaiting Britain as a result of the use of a time travel device. Refusing to believe the old man’s story, Edwin walks away into an eerie fog, suddenly appearing in a dangerous, war-torn version of London overrun with an army of horrific creatures. Edwin enlists the help of Tafe, a woman from this ruined London, and they set off on a quest to save Britain, and the human race, from annihilation. Along their journey they discover that virtually every myth from the past (King Arthur, Merlin, Atlantis) is true as they travel through ruined streets, ancient castles, mysterious sewers, and across Time itself. 

Morlock Night has an amazingly nimble narrative that blends its disparate mythic influences together with incredible craft and guile. When Merlin enters the story, he appears as “Ambrose,” a characterization so rooted in nineteenth-century mannerisms H. Rider Haggard could have created him.  Jeter’s eye for period detail is excellent, and many of my favorite passages from the novel are simply Hocker’s descriptions of the world and the bizarre, terrifying events around him, seen through the lens of a Victorian worldview.  The major characters are all given excellent development, and the author fills the book’s short length with far more detailed insight into the behavior and culture of the Morlocks than Wells provided.  What were presented as ghoulish monsters obscured by darkness in Wells’ novel become a race as subdivided by social class and caste as the people of Victorian England, and their distinct castes are given diverse appearance, intelligence, and even language.  Interestingly, although Morlock Night itself has never been adapted into a film, its concepts of Morlock castes were appropriated by the 2002 remake of The Time Machine, but that film only used them as excuses for action scenes—Morlock Night provides moments of fear, revulsion, hatred, and even comedy in the Morlocks’ characterizations, making them seem like a true species, not just monstrous special effects.

The only element of Wells’ classic that Morlock Night ignores is the surface-dwelling future race, the Eloi; they do not appear in the novel and are only mentioned by one of the Morlocks as being confined to pens following the events of The Time Machine.  Although the Eloi were the least interesting element of Wells’ novel, being dull prey “animals” with no culture, guile, or weaponry, they were an essential part of the class satire of The Time Machine.  They represented the descendants of the idle wealthy, whereas the Morlocks were the evolution of the laborers and people forced to work in the mechanized underground.  Since the reader never learns how the Eloi responded to their loss of “freedom,” a potential storyline that could have complemented Wells’ portrayal of class struggle is lost.  Perhaps this was because Jeter realized many readers (including myself) were more fascinated with the Morlocks than with the Eloi, or because of time constraints, but the actual journey to the far future in Morlock Night feels short and incomplete because of this.

A cult classic at the time of its publication, Morlock Night’s literary influence grew as the steampunk genre expanded and new authors appeared.  Audiences today may take it for granted that strange devices, courageous women and narrators critical of nineteenth-century views of “Empire” appear in Victorian settings, but it was Morlock Night that pioneered these elements of steampunk.  Would there have been a His Dark Materials trilogy or Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes series without Morlock Night? It remains a great read for all steampunk and sci-fi fans, and I look forward to reading Jeter’s other steampunk novel, Infernal Devices.