Although I can’t really say what I was expecting when I picked Morlock Night up, this definitely wasn’t it.
Watch out! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!
Knowing that this was one of the first Steampunk novels (Jeter even coined the term “steam-punks” to describe the stories that he, Tim Powers and James Blaylock were writing) I was expecting a certain … playfulness … that I maybe wouldn’t expect from straight-up sci-fi. Now I am questioning whether this should be categorised as science fiction at all.
I really enjoy books that riff off of other books or approach the same story from another point of view (favourites that I’ve blogged about include Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, a new perspective on the ballad of – you’ve guessed it – Tam Lin; The King’s Peace and The King’s Name by Jo Walton, her masterful reworking of the King Arthur story; and E K Johnston’s A Thousand Nights which re-imagines Scheherazade’s tale). In some ways, that enjoyment saved this book for me, but not how you might think.
Because this was really about King Arthur and the legend that says he will return in Britain’s hour of need.
Surprised? I was.
The story opens with Edwin Hocker (the “quiet, shy man with a beard” of The Time Machine) leaving the Time Traveller’s dinner party and walking home in company with another man called Dr Ambrose. They discuss the evening’s revelations, Hocker becoming more and more convinced that he is in the company of a madman, before Doctor Ambrose leaves him and he finds himself lost in a thick fog. When it clears he finds London has been drastically altered, a war-torn battleground all but overrun with gun-toting Morlocks. He meets a woman wearing men’s clothes and carrying strange devices he doesn’t recognise. Doctor Ambrose makes a second appearance and shows Hocker another vision of the same London, further forward in time, in which there are no longer any signs of life except for “a small shiny-black thing like a salamander”.
Having so recently read The Time Machine it’s easy to see that Hocker’s experience here directly mirrors the Traveller’s: they both witness a radically different future time in which the Morlocks exist, and then a further future in which nearly all life has been extinguished (as a result of the Morlocks? Sort of). Jeter echoes Wells once more when Hocker finds himself back in his own time, by having his protagonist eat meat,
“… a platter of roast beef, steaming from blood-red centre of its slices”
Wells does this with his Traveller to underline that humanity becomes the Eloi and Morlock races in the future, to encourage his readers to contemplate the potential for their civilised lives to lead to a future dominated by the Morlocks’ terrible appetites. Jeter does it presumably to honour the novel he’s riffing off – a wave goodbye before he leads his story away down its own very peculiar path.
After this point we are most definitely not in Kansas anymore. Hocker learns about King Arthur’s constant cycle of reincarnation and the importance of Excalibur to the realisation of his powers. He and Tafe (the woman he met in the future who, weirdly, is now in his time) find themselves on first one quest and then another as they attempt to bring together all the pieces needed for Arthur to come into his power and destroy the secret Morlock invasion force swelling in London’s sewers. They learn of an evil immortal mastermind, discover evidence of Atlantis, meet Merlin, muck about in a submarine for a bit, and visit the repository of the Holy Grail. All at break-neck speed.
So it’s an adventure, for sure, but Hocker is never really much more than a place-holder and Tafe is disappointingly quiet after her bad-ass introduction. If you stare too hard at the plot it comes apart at the seams, and after the initial talk about the damage the Time Traveller has done to Time itself, magic appears to take over wholesale. Excalibur seems to be able to do everything the time machine can and more, and it’s never made clear why Arthur is the only one who can defeat the Morlocks. They’re still not all that scary.
And what about the evil nurse? What was all that about? And why doesn’t she ever get given a name?
Don’t get me wrong, this was fun to read. It’s a book that can be described with words like ‘madcap’ and ‘headlong’ and it’s perfect if you’re not in the mood for anything thinky. When Thumbs and I settle down to watch a BDAM (Big Dumb Action Movie) he always says at the start “remove brain to enjoy”. Well, this is a “remove brain to enjoy” kind of book. It isn’t what I expected, nor is it what I hoped, and I think I’ll stick with Tim Powers for my weird-historical-fantasy-mash-up kicks, but I’m glad I read it all the same. It really doesn’t belong in Vintage Science Fiction Month, but I didn’t know and there’s no time to read something else right now, so … *offers post doubtfully to reader* … here you go. ‘Kay-love-ya-bye-bye.