Who is K.W. Jeter? I’m four books into this author’s oeuvre and I’m still not sure I have a grasp on what a “novel by K.W. Jeter” is going to be about or how it is going to feel or how it will connect stylistically or thematically with his other novels. And you know what? That is not a bad feeling. It is actually a rather thrilling feeling.
Here’s what I know. His first published book was Seeklight (1975). He coined the term “Steampunk” for his novels Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987). He wrote what was arguably the first Cyberpunk novel, Dr. Adder (1984 – although written many years prior to its publication date). He has also written various sequels to Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. My jury is still out on that last factoid; I’ll put a pin in it and think about it later. He is perhaps most at ease when detailing squalid, blighted, unpleasantly hallucinatory urban landscapes. And according to my best friend Wikipedia, Jeter is known for his “literary writing style, dark themes, and paranoid, unsympathetic characters”.
He’s a happy combination of an interior writer concerned with the psychological clockwork of his strikingly cipher-like main characters and an exterior writer who knows how to craft a propulsive narrative, build tension, and deliver exciting action set pieces. He is one of those authors who seems positively disinterested in delivering characters that the reader can like, love, admire, or even empathize with as a fellow human. That disinterest creates a certain remove, a distance between reader and narrative that can feel alienating. In a good way? Well I suppose it depends on the reader. It certainly gave me the space to contemplate what exactly was going on beneath his novels’ dark surfaces.
The man knows how to write! Wikipedia pegged his writing style as “literary” and although I agree, I fear that may give a person the wrong impression of his style. He is not a wordy or verbose writer; far from it – his style is sinuous and hypnotic and, perhaps key to seeing him as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, he adjusts it to fit the topic on hand. His psychological thriller Dark Seeker combines kitchen sink realism with murky, hallucinatory dread. His cyberpunk classic Dr. Adder is all about harsh, brutal, snarky spikiness. Seeklight feels like a tense and often inexplicable fever dream. And in the wonderfully entertaining and comic Infernal Devices he manages to juggle plush, pitch-perfect Victorian language with moments of bizarrely anachronistic ‘modern’ dialogue spilling out of the mouths of a couple mysterious characters. I may have issues with some of his novels but I have no issue whatsoever with his skill and expertise at crafting quality prose and challenging narratives. Jeter’s cup runneth over with pure talent.
So perhaps there is a connecting factor between the four novels I’ve read… namely, those cipher-like main characters. When I think of his “protagonists” (and the quotes are definitely there for a reason), I get the feeling of there is no there there. Dr. Adder’s blank and sleazily ambitious young entrepreneur, Seeklight’s mild and vaguely tabula rasa boy-on-the-run, Infernal Devices’s blandly hollow and prim Victorian everyman, Dark Seeker’s drug-addled victim and former predator-who-wants-to-forget-the-past… each one is not just alienated from the world around them, they are alienated from themselves, from what makes them function and move forward, from what makes them who they are. Posing the question Who are you? to any of these characters would probably get you a big question mark in return. They don’t know and often the reader doesn’t end up knowing either. Each of them is a distinctly unsettling blank canvas, but one that I would hesitate to paint upon, let alone project any specifically human motivations or emotions. That canvas is better blank; it is meant to be an empty space; it is meant to trouble you. Perhaps it is covering something up that is better left unseen.
Following are some synopses and a few comments about the novels I’ve read so far.
Science fiction pulp or sweaty nightmare made real? You be the judge! Seeklight is about the son of a so-called traitor, his flight across a curiously lifeless colony full of curiously lifeless humans, his slow movement into understanding of his purpose and his powers. It has clones and fake angels and screamingly murderous robots. It has a low-key and downbeat style. It has a female character who in any other novel would be a romantic interest, but in this one is just as mindlessly, frustratingly, monomaniacally small-minded as every other character. It has a kind of theme: HUMANS ARE FUCKING MISERABLE BUGS. They are not worth the effort of saving them.
Jeter is not interested in making you happy and he is not interested in letting you understand the ins & outs of the human condition. He wants you to know about entropy, about the inherent piggishness of human nature, about quests that go nowhere, and answers that deliver questions that have no answer. He wants you to understand there is actually no hope. I hate that message and I didn’t particularly like this book. But I also really respected it, its choices and its insularity and its bleak and rather pure logic. Color me impressed! Alienated and saddened, but impressed.
E Allen Limmit is a disaffected young man, fresh off the giant-mutated-chicken farm, once a soldier and later the manager of the farm's mutated-chicken-whore brothel. A somewhat bland and often irritable lad with vague ambitions to be somebody, do something, whatever, just getting the hell off of the farm. Limmit travels to "The Interface" - a terminally seedy street that functions as a meeting place for the degraded, drugged-up, fuck-happy denizens of the counties Los Angeles and Orange. And he has brought a terrifyingly effective death-weapon with him - an instant-massacre machine. Woot! Guess who gets caught between a rock and a hard place.
The novel has admirable chutzpah when it comes to the sheer imagintion on display - the seedy 'Rattown' of L.A., the sewers beneath it, the mind-numbing & hypocritical lifestyle of O.C., the casually bizarre chicken farm, various vividly characterized cast members, a tremendous dream-battle, gruesome & revolting sexuality, a bloodbath on the Interface, even an extraterrestrial Visitor... all quite strikingly stylized, all of these things practically popping off of the page.
As I mentioned earlier, it is perhaps the first cyberpunk novel, being completed in 1972. It certainly has that grim, tarnished, dirty urban feeling that is key to the subgenre. It has the nonchalant violence and misanthropy, the cynicism, the snark. Its narrative includes violent corporate interests, casual murder & slaughter, bad-trip imagery, and a strange kind of psychic pre-internet that exists somewhere in between the mind and the electromagnetic static of radio waves & television transmissions. It is certainly a distinctive book: angrily snappy, grimly jokey, gleefully vindictive. An adventure and an excoriation.
Poor Mike Tyler has a problematic past: once a part of a group of pretentious college kids devoted to a pretentious professor slash guru slash svengali, these kids and their prof decided to take it to the next level by regular ingestion of the highly illegal drug The Host - which apparently induces both hallucinatory effects and shared empathic group connection. The Host is 24/7 and it also features visions of a pointy-teethed lil' guy who wants you to kill kill kill. Its hallucinogenic qualities make participants want to tear limbs from bodies, bathe in blood and laugh like hyenas. Unfortunately for Mike, not only does The Host stay in your system permanently, but now a member of the group has come out of the woodwork to recruit Mike back in. Will more zany slaughter hijinks ensue?
Kids, just say no to drugs!
Kids, just say no to drugs!
Jeter's individualistic vision encompasses the Los Angeles landscape of freeways and strip malls, a grim and sour misanthropy, the need for his characters to escape from various dark pasts, and a fairly expert use of parallel narratives that comment on each other in intriguing ways. And - surprise, surprise - this novel also demonstrates an ability to write compassionately about well-meaning and empathetic supporting characters. Okay, well, two supporting characters. The rest are miserable bugs. And the protagonist... an eerie, unnerving cipher. Of course. Jeter's gotta be Jeter.
Steampunk, ahoy! This is a retro-chic thriller full of tricky clockwork mechanisms, foggy nights and cobblestones, demented aristocrats and dodgy lower class types, inhuman creatures from the sea and their barely human half-breed spawn, creepy flights into darkness and sudden escapes, two brassy mercenaries who are strangely familiar with 20th century slang, and an automaton who comes equipped with all of the wit, intelligence, and sexual drive that his original human model - our strangely bland hero - appears to lack.
The writing is luscious and rather gleefully sardonic. It winks at you while delivering its narrative thrills in a delightfully vivid, semi-archaic purple prose package. And hey, it almost feels like Jeter is even sending up his own traditionally enigmatic heroes. The key to the mysteries swirling around the oddly placid protagonist is his very stolidity. That blankness is actually the answer to the mysteries behind Infernal Devices' central conundrums and contraptions. Clever! And the climax is a literal climax. Ha!