Victorian England, 1892. Mr Edwin Hocker has just heard a tale about a Time Machine, the same tale that another member of the audience, Mr H.G. Wells, will one day publish as a novel. Hocker walks home with the mysterious Dr Ambrose, who insists that not only is the story true, but there’s more to it – by using the Time Machine, the inventor has left open a pathway between that future world and 1892. Now the Morlocks are using that pathway to travel to the past and are amassing an army to conquer England.
For those unfamiliar with H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Morlocks are a cannibalistic post-human species created by class structure – they evolved from the working classes, who were forced to spend most of their lives working in appalling conditions in factories. The Morlocks live underground, and feed on the Eloi – the evolved aristocrats, weak and stupid, reduced to cannibals’ livestock. And now the Morlocks are in the sewers of London, preparing to attack. Not only do they threaten England, but their actions will cause a time paradox that will eventually wipe out all existence.
Dr Ambrose reveals that he is actually the mythical wizard Merlin, and to save London he needs King Arthur who is regularly reborn to save England and Christendom (hahaha) from any threats. Each time Arthur lives a normal life until he encounters Excalibur, whose runes awaken him to his true identity and restore his power. But Arthur in this age is an old war hero, and although Excalibur has been found, a dastardly villain has weakened the sword and imprisoned Arthur. Ambrose needs Hocker and Tafe (a “laconic” woman from an apocalyptic future) to go on a quest to free Arthur, re-empower Excalibur, and thereby give Arthur the strength he needs to defeat the Morlocks.
What follows is a short but action-packed steampunk adventure that hurtles onward like a runaway steam engine. Cross-genre ficton is publisher Angry Robot’s speciality, and here they have a novel that mixes science fiction, fantasy, Arthurian legend and metafiction. Author K.W. Jeter was the man to coin the term “steampunk” in a letter to Locus magazine, and is considered an inspiration to later steampunk writers. Morlock Night was actually first published in 1979, and Angry Robot re-released it this year, along with another of Jeter’s steampunk novels, Infernal Devices (1987).
I love the premise of Morlock Night, which stands as a sort of bizarre sequel to The Time Machine, running on the nightmarish (and paradoxical) thought of a society about to be eaten alive by the monsters it’s unthinkingly creating. Unlike its predecessor though, Morlock Night has a lot more fantasy than science, largely because of the Arthurian plot. There isn’t much tech, steampunk-ish or otherwise, which was a tad disappointing, but it does have other traits of the genre – a mythical hero brought to life, wild adventure and a Victorian-England setting.
Our hero Hocker is very much a man of his time – “steeped in overweening rationalism”, sexist, classist, sceptical. Early on he is suddenly transported into an apocalyptic future, where he finds a woman’s “belligerent” voice more shocking than the state of London wrecked by war. He complains about the Morlocks bringing their “infernal devices into the heart of a civilised nation’s capital instead of out among some peasants and savages where they belonged”. Seeing the vision of London under siege, he is “as outraged by this violation of the proper order as an astronomer would upon seeing the planets break from their orbits and dance into the sun”.
Thanks to Tafe’s courage and commitment, Hocker quickly adopts more egalitarian views of women, and obviously the whole thing with Arthur, the Time Machine and the Morlocks forces him to overcome some of that “overweening rationalism”. On the class front, he’s less progressive. The Morlocks are nothing but monsters to him – “[f]ilthy brutes”etc. – and although he acknowledges their human origins there is no sympathy or class consciousness there, no admission that the Morlocks are the result of social oppression that Hocker has never thought twice about, even if they are themselves a different and very dangerous species. Arthur at least mutters something angry about having lived all those lives “so that a few children of England could grow fat while the many sweat out their drab lives in the dark holes of the cities[…] Did I defend England so that other lands could be made to suffer our will, their people ground beneath our heel for our profit?”. His words make a bit of difference to the tone of the book and acknowledge the politics of Wells’s The Time Machine, but I still found Hocker to be a snob. On the whole though he’s a suitably likeable hero, amusingly if stereotypically English, and prone to humorous outbursts of indignation. Somehow, I found myself liking Tafe too, even though she barely says anything and we’re given almost no information about her. She spends most of the novel pretending to be a man, wearing a suit and smoking a cigar, which I thought was kind of cool.
She’s also a lot braver than Hocker, who doesn’t seem quite the man for saving the world. Then again the villains are not exactly terrifying – they’re the hopelessly inept sort: easily tricked, short on smarts with a tendency to try and make the good guys suffer long painful deaths, inevitably giving them the chance to escape. It’s also a difficult to believe that the Morlocks managed to become such a threat – with a few exceptions they’re a bickering, disorganised horde, dangerous only because of their numbers and viciousness.
I’m not sure what most people would make of all this, but luckily for me it mostly had the effect of making Morlock Night a wacky, old-fashioned, light-hearted adventure even if it does go so fast it occasionally trips over its own feet. The pace is so quick that the novel takes a few shortcuts: there are many rapid developments, often aided by plausibility-stretching behaviour, co-incidences and deus ex machinas. By the end the story is rushing forward at such breakneck speed, that a half a novel’s worth of progress and action get summarised in a few paragraphs and it’s all over before you know it. Best not to read this is if you’re going to be fussy, but if you can suspend your disbelief, it’s quite good fun. Sort of like watching a random movie on TV just because it’s on and you’re bored. You’re not expecting much, but you end up having a good time. If all this sounds like your cup of Earl Grey, then go for it.