The Time Traveller’s Privilege

Both Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” and Wells’s The Time Machine solidify their relationship to the science fiction genre by testing the theoretical limits of established scientific ideas. In Wells, the reader is guided through a thorough speculation on the logistics of time travel when the Time Traveller posits the idea of moving through the fourth dimension–a proposition that merely requires the expansion of already existing scientific facts (Wells 4). The result is an oscillation between established reality and plausible alternatives to reality, rather than an escape through fantasy. Similarly, Wertenbaker pays close attention to already established astrological knowledge in order to speculate on the unknown structures of the universe, allowing him to posit theories of the nebulae and multiple universes (“The Man from the Atom” 66). Moreover, both of these features require characters who not only posit theories but also test them out and refute them. This occurs multiple times for the Time Traveller, such as when he works through the “altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks–a something inhuman and malign” (Wells 48). However, while both stories allow for the ability to call these theories into question, it is in this ability to refute them that distinguishes the two different situations of address. When the Time Traveller finds himself reevaluating his earlier theories, it is in the context of someone who is superior to the times upon which he is speculating. Even though the environment is alien to him, he is already equipped with the languages and frameworks of the past with which to evaluate the future, such as “aristocracy,” and the more menacing the Morlocks appear the less “human” they become. Additionally, the framing structure requires that our conveyor of these ideas will return unscathed in order to tell the tale, reasserting the privilege of the Time Traveller’s present. The narrator in “The Man from the Atom” earns no such privilege; his only ability to test Professor Martyn’s theories (as well as his own) happens through his physical displacement and his becoming lost in space and time. By testing out these scientific theories, the Man from the Atom must become vulnerable and completely helpless–with no source of empathy or assertions of humanity or civilization to cling to.

The Goal of Knowing

Both Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s We and G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man From The Atom” discuss the possibility of an “end” to discovery — that is, an end to the unknown. In We, D-503 is hugely discomforted by I-330’s suggestion that the last revolution was not the last one, and that there is no such thing as a “last” revolution. He finds discomfort in her ideas because he believes that the last revolution, the Two Hundred Years’ War, was the end to all revolutions, and that the end goal was met–the happiness and true, “correct” nature of all persons (at least within OneState). I-330, however, debunks his thought in saying, “But [our ancestors] did one thing wrong: later they began to believe that they were the last number, a number that does not exist in nature” (We, Record 30). While I-330 is keen on believing that there is no end to discovery, particularly believing that OneState is stifling, Kirby in “The Man From The Atom” is excited about Professor Martyn’s invention not only due to its brilliance, but also because it holds promise for an end goal: “Why, don’t you realize, Professor, that this will revolutionize Science? There is nothing, hardly, that will be unknown” (63). He’s excited to risk endangering his life to test the machine due to this conceived notion that with it, nothing will be unknown, and that there will be nothing left in need of discovering. Of course, both characters do find out that things are more complicated than just “knowing all” and “knowing hardly anything” –that the journey to discovery is tricky and dangerous, and overall not what they expected.

What I find interesting is that while both characters have this notion that there is an “end” to discovery, and that all that is unknown will be known, these ideas generally go against the science fiction genre. Without the possibility of discovery, and without an “unknown” to discover, the drive behind science fiction is reduced. There usually needs to be some notion of the unknown to create a story in which discovery is possible.