|DAW, 1979, 156pp, $1.10, ISBN 0 87997 468 0|
Another Dave Langford review.
SF authors are often tempted to graft their work onto that of celebrated dead writers who are not in a position to complain. The result can be worthwhile (e.g. Christopher Priest's The Space Machine), but generally we're treated to horrors like The Wind Whales of Ishmael -- an ill-fitting sequel to Moby Dick wherein Philip José Farmer displays his inability to write like Melville or, for that matter, like anybody but Philip José Farmer.
Morlock Night, planted firmly in Wells territory and following on from The Time Machine, manages to avoid the worst pitfalls. No Wells characters are recycled and debased, nor are there cameo appearances from Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll. The hero and narrator, Hocker, is the "quiet, shy man" who never spoke during the Time Traveller's recital; his story follows neatly enough from Wells's premises. It turns out that the Time Traveller met an inferior class of Morlock, mere proles; behind the scenes are some horridly clever ones who, after dealing with the Traveller on his second visit, proceed to master the time machine and invade the London of 1892. (The machine will in fact only operate to link 1892 and that distant future, owing to Edmund Crispin's "Hook, Line and Sinker Effect" -- so called because the reader has to swallow it.) Bored by their monotonous diet of stewed Eloi, these super-Morlocks fancy some haute cuisine cannibalism. In a few decades the world is a nasty mess, as Hocker is allowed to experience proleptically; the growing disturbance of the Scheme of Things will lead to final blackout unless prevented at its source in 1892 ...
So far this is a scenario for an action-adventure like countless others; but Jeter has a few good cards to play. Hocker's 19th century narrative style is well handled -- I suspect DAW must take the blame for such interesting Victorianisms as "gotten", "inside of" and "a long ways" (on the other hand, an Englishwoman of "a generation hence" comes out with "I just kind of figured ..."). The vision of a Morlock-devastated world is suitably horrifying. Best of all is the lore of the London sewers (where else would Morlocks set up shop?), thick with fascinating details lifted from Mayhew's London Labour and London Poor -- giving a feel of authenticity unattainable by the more traditional auctorial study of Wells, Doyle and the rest.
Incidentally, the woman mentioned above is the main -- virtually the only -- female character, and like most female characters these days she is tough, competent, quick on the uptake, etc, etc. Such is the impact of Raised Consciousness on the sf field; the routinely tough, competent woman is becoming as much of a cliché as her ancestress, the heroine whose soft curvaceous body was matched by a mind of similar texture. Tafe, the woman in question, operates very nicely in her own milieu -- the Morlock-shattered future England; for the rest of the book Jester can think of little to do with her, and she fades out of sight for whole chapters. Or so it seems.
Unfortunately Jeter's eagerness to make this the most mindbogglingly imaginative novel ever leads him into ghastly excesses. Hold on tight! The gentleman responsible for alerting Hocker to the peril is none other than Merlinus Ambrosius. Only by reassembling Excalibur and unearthing the current incarnation of Arthur can the Morlocks can be defeated. (And who could the incarnation of Arthur possibly be? You may well ask.) Meanwhile, and for no apparent reason, it turns out that the remoter portions of the sewers -- where the foot of civil engineer has presumably never trod -- connect with the pan-European subway system established by the bygone people of Atlantis. Good grief.
All this improbable material is actually assembled more dextrously than one would suspect from the mere list, but I couldn't force myself to believe it. Yet ... the predictable ending does somehow avoid utter corniness; though amply flawed, Morlock Night isn't bad as an entertaining romp. Better to fail through excess than aridity any day.
|First published in Foundation 19, June 1980.|
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