Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Morlock Night

by K. W. Jeter


What if certain works of fiction, or legends, were all true? Stories based on this premise often leave me with a kind of mental itch. It's an idea that makes no allowance for genius, or the pure fun of creativity, or the sport of telling great big fibs. Morlock Night does this at least three times, mashing up the legends of King Arthur and Atlantis with elements from H. G. Wells' The Time Machine.

Edwin Hocker is a Victorian gentleman who finds the notion of time travel too absurd to entertain. Then he meets Dr Ambrose, who persuades him to take the idea considerably more seriously. Hocker is shown glimpses of a future London overrun by Morlocks, and of the imminent extinction of the human race. Worse, the advent of time travel has set forces in motion that could lead to the destruction of time itself. The misuse of the time machine could allow the rapacious Morlocks to plunder the past, treating it like a limitless larder of food and resources.

Hocker comes across Tafe on his travels. She's a laconic, stoic woman who tends to dress as a man. Dr Ambrose tasks Hocker and Tafe with saving the world and foiling the destructive plots of Merdenne and his cohorts. Merdenne is like an evil twin of Dr Ambrose, his immortal nemesis bent on destruction, or so it seems. But can Hocker trust anything Dr Ambrose tells him, when Ambrose spouts so many mad assertions and claims to be Merlin himself?

Hocker goes on a quest to find the fragmented pieces of Excalibur in order to restore a weakened, old King Arthur to his full strength and save the day before it's too late for England and everywhere and everywhen else. His search takes him into the dank, dirty tunnels under London, and into a strange subterranean world rife with legends of the Lost Coin World. The Toshers who work in the tunnels have their own peculiar culture and ethics.

Some of the villains are a bit too one-dimensional. They're unremittingly evil, whether it's overt brutality or covered up with a veneer of politeness like Colonel Nalga, the Morlock. Tafe is a more interesting character, a survivor who doesn't always behave as Hocker expects her to, but she doesn't actually get to say very much in this short novel. Hocker is the one who does most of the talking, and his wordy Victorian language edges towards comedy because it's so exaggerated. But in spite of his buttoned-up manner and the story's pick 'n' mix approach to using legends and literary sources, Morlock Night is more of an adventure than a farce. It stays on the right side of silly by evoking a heady atmosphere of despair as the characters fight to survive underground or in different time periods, and by keeping the tension high until the end.

As with many time travel stories there are problems with paradoxes, inconsistencies, and confusion. The Morlocks should be able to look at history and know everything that's happened, in theory, so they should always have the upper hand unless time keeps changing course every time someone uses the time machine and alters history. The story doesn't hold together if you think too hard about it. However there's a nicely rounded ending that resolves some of these difficulties at least. Morlock Night is an enjoyable bit of fanciful steampunk that doesn't take itself overly seriously. It could easily have gone over the top by mixing up disparate legends with time travel, but I think the author gets away with it this time and the story ends up quirky and creative rather than patently absurd.

25th July 2011

Book Details

Decade: 1970s

Categories: Books

    Male Protagonist  

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Review © Ros Jackson