K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night (1979) is often cited as the first novel to be categorized at “steampunk.” In a 1987 letter to Locus magazine, Jeter coined the term in an effort to describe the types of stories that he and his friends Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock were writing:
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
As Tim Powers explains in his introduction to Morlock Night, Jeter wrote this book in 1976 for a British publisher who requested ten novels about King Arthur being reincarnated to come to England’s rescue at different points in that country’s history. Powers, Blaylock and Jeter agreed to write the novels. When they divvied up the history, Jeter ended up with the Victorian era.
For Morlock Night, he decided to write a steampunk “sequel” to H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. The premise is that the Morlocks, those brutish troglodytes who are our far-future descendants in Wells’ story, used the time machine to travel back to Victorian London where they plan to take over the city. Their use of the machine has created a channel in time that could make time collapse. Thus, it’s not just England that’s in danger, but the entire universe.
King Arthur, who keeps being reborn but never realizes who he is until he’s needed, must come to the rescue. To do this, he’ll need Excalibur which, unfortunately, has also been traveling through time and has been divided into three parts. The narrator of Morlock Night, along with an adventurous woman wearing men’s clothing, must find the Excaliburs so that Arthur can get his power back. This requires various excursions into the seedy parts of London and its sewers.
I think it’s important to remember the purpose of Morlock Night (a steampunk story about King Arthur) when judging the novel. As a madcap Victorian adventure fantasy, it works well enough, and is similar in many ways to Jeter’s Infernal Devices. The plot is quick, a bit silly, and doesn’t hold up well to excessive scrutiny (e.g., Why is Arthur the only one who can beat the Morlocks? Doesn’t England have an army for this?). Characterization is thin (e.g., What is the woman in men’s clothing doing there? She doesn’t contribute much and it’s easy to forget she’s tagging along, though our narrator mentions that she makes a good companion. Is she a counterpart to Weena, the Time Traveler’s female companion in The Time Machine?) Nevertheless, the setting feels genuine and the humor feels appropriately Victorian (e.g., I thought the toshing in the London sewers was hilarious).
So as a steampunk adventure, which is what it is, Morlock Night is successful. But as a “sequel” to The Time Machine, as some (including Wikipedia) have called it, it doesn’t work very well. The story contains many elements of, and allusions to, The Time Machine, but it’s not meant as pastiche. The focus is definitely on wacky exploits in a foggy gas-lit London and not as a continuation of Wells’ thought-provoking warning about a possible future of human society. If you’re expecting a sequel to The Time Machine, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting to read the first steampunk novel, you’ll probably be satisfied.
Thanks to Angry Robot for publishing this classic and to Brilliance Audio for putting it in audio format. Michael Page does a great job with the narration. I don’t like his voice for the woman (but she doesn’t speak much), but I thought he sounded just like a 19th century Englishman.