Review: K.W. Jeter "Infernal Devices" and "Morlock Night"

For those of you who were not aware of it: Mr. Jeter named us, the genre, the lifestyle. He is the inventor of the term Steampunk. His two defining steampunk novels Infernal Devices and Morlock Night are back in print now, for the first time since the late ’80s, actually, and I have had the great pleasure of reading and reviewing them.

Morlock Night

Morlock Night CoverMorlock Night is a sequel to H.G. Well’s Time Machine. The Morlocks have gotten hold of the time machine and are rampaging through time, bent on conquering Victorian London and the world. They are opposed by none other than Merlin and King Arthur. There is also a touch of Atlantis in this cocktail. Yes, the blood of the Atlanteans flows in English veins.

The clicheés of the times (Morlock Night was first punlished in 1979) do not end there. The lines of good and evil are also very clearly drawn. The English are good, pure Christians while the Morlocks are guided by an old Nemesis of Merlin and an enemy to all Christendom. The Morlocks’ behaviour and language is as far as it can be from civilized Britain: Their language sounds like a bastardized version of German and Slavic tongues blended together and they also use their hands a lot while talking, in the manner of the Italians. The crowning moment comes when the Dark Castle, the base of operation for the Morlocks, is visited: It is lockated in an alternate timeline in what will one day be… Germany!

Despite what you may think now, Morlock Night is an excellent read. The clicheés are bad but you can regard them with some temporal distance and that makes them rather cosy and quaint. The plot is transparent but it does not hurt the enjoyment at all. I was both rather charmed and enthralled by Morlock Night, I could not put it down. In fact, I finished it in one sitting. Morlock Night grips you with the tension and action in it, it makes you laugh with all the bad tropes and clicheés and shows you how much development has been in the scene in the last 20-odd years.

And in the end you close the little book and think it was too short and you finished it too quickly. Morlock Night gets nine out of ten Zeppelins.

Infernal Devices

Infernal Devices is quite a different reading experience to Morlock Night. Where Morlock Night has a plot that is transparent right from the start, nothing is clear in Infernal Devices almost until the very end and there are quite a few surprising and some rather nasty turns. In Morlock Night, good  and evil are clearly definded, in Infernal Devices, you cannot  be sure at all who is the protagonist’s ally and who is not.

The novel features a somewhat happles protagonist, George Dower, the inheritor of his fathers workshop, who is dragged into a series of events both baffling and confusing to him. He meets fellow Londoners who are odd and than there are some who are even more odd. Most are people his father knew and who are somewhat in the know about things and think he is really in the know which he is not… Worse still: There are people who want him dead and he has no clue why. Infernal Devices managed to convey the protagonist’s confusion quite well to me. For  the better part of the first half of the novel, I found Infernal Devices to be a rather difficult and confusing read. A shame really, since the plot is interesting, the characters are most intriguing and the inhabitants of Wetwick and Dampfort are to my cthulhuesque’s heart delight. The eponymous infernal devices, creations of Dower’s father, are about as steampunk as it gets, clockwork abominations of various shapes and sizes, alas, the start is a touch slow.

After all the pieces of the puzzle were in place, the confusion abrubtely left and the reading became thoroughly enjoyable. I could finally concentrate on the mad chase that was going on and could understand why all those people were acting so weirdly. It all makes perfect sense within the story. K.W. Jeter has created quite a marvelous world in Infernal Devices. Sometimes rather weird and alien but always concistent.

The novel also ends with one of the biggest surprises in the history of literature I think. The world is saved not by might of arms, nor by magic, nor by love but rather by… Well, I guess you should find out yourselves and I hope you are as delighted by the final implied scene as I was.

If it only wasn’t for this confusing start, Infernal Devices could have scored higher but still, it is seven out of ten Zeppelins.

In any case, for their significance alone, Infernal Devices and Morlock Night are two novels no Steampunk should miss in his collection. They also make great reference material for demonstrating the changes which occured in fantastic literature over the last 30 years.

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