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?