K W JETER
To Dorothea KennyINTRODUCTION
By Tim Powers
It was K. W. Jeter who, in the letter column of the April 1987 issue of
magazine, coined the word "Steampunk" to describe some books he and James Blaylock and I were writing at the time. Cyberpunk was the literary movement current in science fiction then, so Jeter jokingly proposed the new term for our stuff, "based on the appropriate technology of the era".
Â Â When I searched for the word on Google this evening, the search engine (almost a Steampunk term right there) returned well over six million results. And though there were precursors, books by Ronald Clark and Michael Moorcock and Harry Harrison, it was Jeter's
in 1979 that really started it all â all the books and movies about extraordinary gentlemen in capes and top hats scurrying through foggy night-time London on secret errands that involve infernal devices and wonderful machines with elaborate scrollwork on the gears and levers.
Â Â I believe it was early in 1976 that Roger Elwood told K. W. Jeter, Ray Nelson and I that a British publisher wanted a series of ten books based on the idea of King Arthur being reincarnated throughout the centuries, obligingly reappearing whenever England needed rescuing. The three of us agreed to write them, and we got together to divvy up history, being sure to leave enough years between adventures for Arthur to have time to be born and grow to adulthood. As I recall, we kind of haggled over various dates, but Jeter came away with the clear claim on Victorian England. I'm glad now that Nelson and I missed grabbing that slot â neither of us could have written anything like
Â Â The deal with the British publisher fell apart, but
found an American publisher, and then a different British one, and readers on both sides of the Atlantic got to experience Jeter's unique Victorian London.
Â Â And it is unique. I think Blaylock might have visited England before he wrote books like
but neither Jeter nor I had any first-hand knowledge of the place. Nevertheless, Blaylock, Jeter and I spent many afternoons over endless pitchers of beer in a bar called O'Hara's, hatching extravagant science fiction and fantasy plots set in London as we variously imagined it.
Â Â Jeter discovered the priceless source book, Henry Mayhew's
London Labour and London Poor
, and Blaylock and I made eager use of it too. And when I recently asked Jeter about other sources, he said, "Anything else I probably swiped from reading Victorian novelists, including William Harrison Ainsworth, who was probably the best, or at least the most lurid, of the Victorian 'pulp' novelists, not that that term was used to describe writers like him back then; right at the moment I'm re-reading his GUY FAWKES [â¦] and enjoying it a great deal; quite a reminder of just how damn good were even the Victorian writers who are now considered minor or completely forgotten. Or just flat-out maligned, such as Bulwer-Lytton, who was frankly a great writer, and any snotty little college professor who disagrees can kiss my ass; feel free to quote me in that exact language. George Gissing is considered to have been a fairly serious writer, and I read quite a few of his novels, particularly his early ones, such as DEMOS and THE NETHER WORLD, which are much more grimly Dickensian in tone than his later ones."
Â Â In other words, Jeter had a fully-realized London in his head, and if it didn't conform precisely to the actual London of 1895, it derived from richly enhanced contemporary models. The result,
, is a book that almost reads as if H. Rider Haggard had written it, rather than a young 20th century Californian.
Â Â Almost. Jeter's book bangs along at a much faster pace than Haggard's books did, and the deadpan humor is all Jeter's. The "excitable and unrestrained" character of the Morlocks as they angrily try to work a machine hopelessly beyond their comprehension is wonderful to see, and the impatient banter between Edwin Hocker and Tafe is entertainingly discordant â just by the phrasing of Tafe's comments we soon catch on that she's from a more modern time.
Â Â Not that it's all beer and skittles, by any means. There are perils, and they're downright apocalyptic. The doom that threatens the world â "Nothing comes after this [â¦] And nothing before, either [â¦ ] My dear fellow [â¦] this is no
to everything, this
everything" â is a nightmare vision right out of Philip K. Dick.
Â Â But Jeter's London is, as well as dangerous, endlessly colorful and grotesque â the underground Lost Coin World, with the vast corroded-together conglomeration of swords and coins and antediluvian submarines known as the Grand Tosh â the Edinburgh scholar whose pursuit of Atlantean artifacts has led him to retire forever into the London sewers â the malevolent mummy in the castle of Montsegurâ!
Â Â Without knowing that he was breaking a new trail that would one day be a conduit for lots of books and movies and graphic novels and clothing and jewelry and God knows what all, Jeter in this book pointed out a new and fascinating directionâ¦ and then even provided the enduring name for it.
Â Â I'm glad the book that started it all is back in print for a new generation of readers.
Â Â Tim Powers
"â¦ and another â a quiet, shy man with a beard â whom I didn't know, and who, as far as my observation went, never opened his mouth all the evening."
H. G. Wells,
The Time Machine
Mr Hocker Begins
"An astonishing narrative, don't you think?"
Â Â "What? Ohâ¦ yes. Yes, indeed. Quite incredible." In truth, I hadn't even been aware of the other's presence at my side until he spoke. Darkness and fog had all but swallowed up the landmarks of the city so familiar to me. The prideful namesake of the Lion Brewery had glared down at me as I passed, then was gone; I had thought myself all alone as I walked through the thickening London night air, beneath the gas lamps flaring a sulphurous yellow through the mist. Now my private universe was halved by this quiet-stepping other.
Â Â "Incredible?" he echoed and allowed his fine lips to trace the barest motion of a smile. "Perhaps. Perhaps."
Â Â Now that I had directed my attention toward him, I was amused that so striking a figure could have paced anywhere near the corner of my eye without forcing himself to the centre of my thoughts. Swathed in an overcoat so black it seemed a hole into which the dim street light poured and was swallowed up â indeed, my companion appeared to be an animated fragment of the night itself, with the glossy points of his patent boots the only stars. And the face! A pale moon to be sure! Handsome enough with dark eyes and sensuous mouth beneath lustrous jet hair, but a complexion of such a pallor that I couldn't help wondering what illness or unnatural habits had blanched him thus.
Â Â "So you find his story beyond belief, eh?" asked the Pale Man â for so I had already begun to identify him in my own mind â as we paced farther down the street.
Â Â My opinion escaped in a contemptuous snort. "If our host really expected us to believe his outlandish tale," said I, "then he badly misjudged his audience, I'm afraid. A Machine for Travelling through Time! Whizzing along through millions of years to find our descendants divided into cannibalistic brutes below the ground and effete wastrels above! What rot. A very pretty bedtime fable for the pessimistic, atheistic, and socialistic, butâ¦ no more than that, I'm sure."
Â Â "Eh! And is that allâ" The Pale Man whipped a slender ebony walking stick from his far side and blocked my progress with it. "Is that all his story signified to you?"
Â Â I brushed the stick away from my chest and resumed my walk. My unwanted companion's singular rudeness stiffened the tenor of my voice as I replied, "A cracking good evening's entertainment I thought it, which, supplied with a more uplifting ending, would make a diverting fiction for The Strand. If I find time to put it down on paper I shall certainly submit it to the editors of that periodical. And now, sirâ"
Â Â "Oh, don't bother trying to write it," interrupted the Pale Man. "One of our host's other guests will do a perfectly adequate job of recording it, in about â let's see â this is 1892, isn't it?"
Â Â "For God's sake, man," I said in exasperation, "of course it is! How befuddled are you?" Had I a drunkard beside me?
Â Â "Yes," mused the Pale Man, touching his chin with his black gloved hand, "in about three years time I see Mr. Wells writing it. Yes, 1895 would be the date. That is, of course, if there ever is an 1895."
Â Â "And why shouldn't there be?" A drunkard, and an apocalyptist to boot! On the spot I resolved to set foot no more in a parlour that attracted such queer ducks. The private income left to me by my late father enabled me to pursue my diversions as I wished â principally the study of the ancient Celtic language and artefacts â but in leading such a fetterless life I did receive the damnedest invitations. Dinners where the host babbled about his Time Machine! But no more. Better my usual solitude than any more such nonsense.
Â Â "Ah, yes. There will always be an England, won't there?"
Â Â My companion had a most irritating half-smile, as though prompted by the smug contemplation of someone else's stupidity. "And a solid, happy world for it to sit upon like a green and prosperous jewel. Eh? That's the way it looks to you now, doesn't it?"
Â Â "And to anyone else with eyes to see." I decided to cut short what further arguments I now anticipated from him. "Sir, the like of your sentiments has been echoed by scores of crazed loons teetering on soap crates in every public park in London â all to sway the course of English empire no more than summer breezes do upon Gibraltar! I care not for the exact label you place on your foolishness, be it anarchism, socialism, land reform, Owenism, or whatever. To me it is muddle-headedness at best, damnable knavery at worst. And now, sir, I will be taking my leave ofâ"
Â Â "Not yet," he rudely commanded. With a vice-like grip he laid hold of my arm. "You mistake me. Petty politics concern me not at all." He let go and the blood throbbed back into my arm.
Â Â I sighed and resigned myself to further conversation. Doubtless this person meant to accompany me all the way to my front door. And farther than that? No, if necessary, a boot would keep him out of my own parlour â a satisfying thought. Since my youth I had worked out daily with a set of Indian clubs and had done a little boxing at school, so despite my slender physique I had little fear of a tussle with this boorish fellow.
Â Â "And what does interest you then?" I asked. I found my crusted old briar in my coat pocket and brought it to my mouth, as I meant to place a smoker's defensive veil between him and myself. But further probing and thumping of my pockets didn't turn up my tobacco pouch; an annoyance, as I felt sure I had had it when I had left my host for the evening's residence.
Â Â "Here. Try some of mine." My pallid companion extended toward me a black Morocco envelope. "Help yourself, Mr. Hocker. It is Mr. Edwin Hocker, isn't it?"
Â Â "Yes, of course it is," I murmured as I looked into his pouch. It was filled with a crude shag of almost sinister darkness, perfect velvet with tiny oily glints. Still, a pipe can't be taken out of one's mouth without having been lit â at least satisfactorily, that is. I filled mine and lit it from my box of safety matches. The shag turned out to be nowhere as harsh as its forbidding appearance had suggested. Soon a dense nimbus of smoke was added to the thick fog pressing in around us.