Monthly Archives: May 2011

Second life for K.W. Jeter’s steampunk classics

The cover of the new edition of “Infernal Devices.”

By Geoff Schumacher

K.W. Jeter, formerly of Las Vegas, now of San Francisco, has just seen two of his landmark steampunk novels return to bookstore shelves. Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987) are back in print, courtesy of Angry Robot Books, and K.W. is reportedly hard at work on a sequel to Infernal.

Jeter has connections to both editors of this website. A few years back, he was a freelance writer for the Las Vegas Weekly newspaper, edited at the time by Scott Dickensheets. For the Weekly, Jeter wrote essays on film, literature, culture, and occasionally politics.

Last fall, Jeter, before leaving Las Vegas for San Francisco, contributed a short story to a book that I edited,  The Perpetual Engine of Hope, a project sponsored by the Vegas Valley Book Festival and published by CityLife Books. Jeter’s story is arguably the most haunting and memorable in the collection. (Around this same time, Jeter contributed another fine story to the Dead Neon anthology published by the University of Nevada Press.)

The reissue of Morlock Night comes with an introduction by the novelist Tim Powers, who relates the story of how Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in 1987 and credits Jeter with starting the movement almost ten years earlier with this novel. Morlock Night is essentially a sequel to H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, with the Morlocks returning to Victorian England “to feed upon docile humanity.”

Infernal Devices features an introduction by the author, a transfixing essay in which Jeter, reflecting his nature, downplays his importance to the genre he named. He writes:

“The most I can be credited with is the vaguely modernistic nameplate under the hood ornament, as though the chrome moniker of a Chrysler Airflow had been bolted to Amédée-Ernest Bolléé’s 1875 L’Obeissante and sent cruising for dates at Mel’s Diner.”

And yet Jeter is pleased with a certain public’s fascination with “Victorian tech”:

“There’s something nauseating predigested about the look of late 20th and early 21st century industrial design, all those Steve Jobs-approved rounded edges like cough lozenges sucked on for a minute or so before being spat into your hand. Whereas Victorian machines, with their precision-cut gears and spurred mantis armatures, are unabashedly themselves rather than trying to smoothly cozen their way into your life.”

I can’t claim to be a veteran fan of steampunk literature, movies, fashion, and whatever else emerged from this cultural phenomenon. But I am a fan of Jeter’s writing, which is well represented by these two novels.

Jeter’s steampunk contributions are just part of his literary history. He also contributed to another lively sci-fi genre: cyberpunk. His novel Dr. Adder, praised by his friend Philip K. Dick, was written in 1972 but not published until 1984, in part because of its graphic sex and violence. Sadly, Dr. Adder is difficult to find today. Perhaps an adventurous small publisher wants to take on the challenge of reviving this cyberpunk classic?

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The world according to Geoff Dyer: A short appreciation

By Geoff Schumacher

Geoff Dyer is a British writer of novels, essays, reviews, and articles. He writes about all kinds of things for all sorts of publications. That’s his deal: He refuses to be classified as one kind of writer or another. He wants to retain the flexibility to tackle whatever subject attracts his interest.

A selection of Dyer’s nonfiction work from 1989 to 2010 has been compiled in a recently published book from Graywolf Press (Minneapolis) called Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. I’ve been reading it for the past couple of weeks and finished it today. I thoroughly enjoyed almost every piece in the collection — if I had to put a figure on it, I’d say it’s ninety percent great.

This is not a full-bodied review, but I encourage anyone with an interest in writing creative nonfiction to get a hold of this book and study a master at work. Above all, Dyer has a distinctive voice, and it is one you want to hear. You might not agree with his views of certain books or artists, or with his attitudes toward life in general, but I believe you will be entranced by his smart, funny, thoughtful voice.

Oddly, I found myself particularly enjoying Dyer’s essays and reviews on photography. I have not in the past exhibited a particular interest in art photography, but under Dyer’s tutelage, my interest is now growing. But I reserve the highest praise for a couple of autobiographical essays toward the end of the book. Through the zoom lens of his modest upbringing, college years and layabout twenties, Dyer manages to paint an astonishingly vivid portrait of the 1970s and ’80s in London and beyond.

I was intrigued by a couple of essays in which he describes his reluctance to work — his desire for a life of leisure without really earning it. There is no angst, as you might imagine, from some guy who pines for this life of leisure but cannot attain it because he must fulfill obligations to pay bills, provide for family, and so forth. Rather, Dyer has succeeded in attaining his desired lifestyle through a combination of government support and writing for money. But unlike most writers, who tie themselves to full-time jobs with newspapers, magazines, and other publications, Dyer has always been a freelancer, and has taken pride in selecting assignments because he wants to do them, not because he has a pile of bills to pay. In a piece titled “Sacked,” Dyer describes some terrible job he was fired from when he was right out of college and his subsequent life as a, well, nonworker:

“Since then I’ve done pretty much as I pleased, letting life find its own rhythm, working when I felt like it, not working when I didn’t. I’ve not always been happy — far from it — but I’ve always felt responsible for my happiness and liable for my unhappiness. I’ve been free to waste my time as I please — and I have wasted tons of it, but at least it’s been me doing the wasting; as such, it’s not been wasted at all, not a moment of it.”

Envious? Of course. Bitter? Maybe a little. But above all, I’m happy that a writer out there in the world has been able to live in this fashion, and to take a little time out of his nonbusy schedule to write some fine things for the rest of us to read and think about. I plan to read more of Dyer’s work.

I had the honor of meeting him at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and he signed for me a copy of one of his earlier works called Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. Noting that we spell our first names the same, his inscription reads: “For Geoff, from Geoff (Dyer) in L.A.” Before I read the book about D.H. Lawrence, however, I plan to read a more recent book of travel essays called Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which includes a piece about the annual Burning Man Festival in Northern Nevada.

If I can’t live Dyer’s writing life, at least I can enjoy the literary fruits that grow from it.

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