Scifi Genre Signals: Single Men with a Death Wish

Both H.G Well’s The Time Machine and The Man from the Atom by G. Peyton Wertenbaker utilize a specific genre signal—a single man who goes on a faraway dangerous adventure for the sake of science–which I think is very interesting.  Both the Time Traveler and Kirby are undoubedly single men, as there has never been any mention of the Time Traveler having an attachment to anyone in his house or otherwise and Kirby specifically mentions always being “ready for these experiments” (Wertenbaker 64).  Likewise, both of these men are going on really dangerous journeys—the Time Traveler is going to the far future and he has no clue what he is getting himself into.  In fact, the Time Traveler does not even know if the Earth would exist at that point and as the story progresses we see that it was indeed a dangerous journey that he was not prepared for.  Kirby as well jumped on board with the professor’s experiment without much thought—even though the professor explicitly warned him by saying, “’You must realize, of course, that there are a multitude of unknown dangers. I know nothing of the complete effects of the machine.  But my experiments on inanimate objects have seemed satisfactory’” (Wertenbaker 63).  Any sane person would at least hesitate when the professor who built the machine says he does not know all there is to know about said machine yet.  Obviously these men have motivations that guide their actions, most likely for the sake of science, but I see this as a signal of the Science Fiction genre.

The Man From the Atom : The Interstellar Savage

Once Kirby in The Man from the Atom becomes larger than life on a “strange planet of a strange star” he becomes aware of the relative meaningless of the human footprint on an ever-expanding universe (66). The Professor’s machine stretches his life expectancy by increasing his size, but all around him “men had come and died, races had flourished had fallen” (66). He enters into the unknown like the Time Traveller’s ability to live outside of time and space and bear witness to other societies. Kirby explains how “[i]n ten minutes of [his] life” even the professor has lived away a lifetime. One discovers a sci-fi hero encountering a new civilization as the outsider. Kirby explains, “I find myself a savage, a creature to be treated with pity and contempt in a world too advanced even for his comprehension. Nothing here means anything to me” (66). Not only does his gigantic size make him stick out like a sore thumb, but the relative sentiment of receiving a polarizing reception from foreign civilizations reminds one of the Eloi and Morlocks. Kirby immediately thinks the others will feel sorry for him or consider him a worthless creature. Although the Time Traveller’s appearance does not change, the stark differences between an alien race and a human one conjures complex themes about identity and acceptance between two seemingly different groups. The feeling of becoming the other, the savage, seems to be the hyperbolic reaction of Kirby. Interestinly enough, the Time Traveller recognizes his difference, he considers the Elois and Morlocks to be the savage other. Maybe because the Time Traveller’s reckless abandon desires his time travelling success, he feels superior and successful. However, Kirby’s freak accident feels like a cautionary tale about the limitless variables in an uncontrolled science experiment.

A Taste of Adventure in the Face of Demise

H. G. Well’s Time Machine, and Wertenbaker’s The Man from the Atom, have two main characters that seem to have a severe disregard for their own personal safety. Kirby in The Man front the Atom, puts his personal safety in the hands of a controversial scientist who is not accepted by the rest of contemporaries and allows himself to be the Guinea pig in his outlandish experiments. The Time Traveller does something similar in his story except he is putting himself in danger instead of endangering the lives of others. The reckless danger that scientist and adventure characters put themselves into during their stories seems to be a commentary on the recklessness that some endeavors into exploration and science seem to ignore. The lack of care and arrogance that these characters show toward the forces of nature that they are trying to manipulate usually ends up badly for them. The Time Traveler realizes that humanity is just a hiccup in the fate of humanity and all the cultural and intellectual progress that humans are striving for will end up in mindless crab people on a dead planet. Kirby ends up getting ripped away from his world because he allows himself to be manipulated by the Professor’s experiment.  It goes along with the cautionary tale vein that is carried within many science fiction stories especially within dystopian literature. This same theme reminds me of Frankenstein. The authors might not be saying science shouldn’t be explored but that people should not play God, and that there needs to be a respect for nature.

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.

The Professor and the Traveler

Something that struck me while I was reading “The Man from the Atom” was the depiction of Professor Martyn, as I was immediately reminded of the Time Traveler from Wells’ The Time Machine. Both are men of great curiosity, so much so that they are ostracized within their respective communities. Of the Professor, Kirby conveys, “Ordinary men avoided him because they were unable to understand the greatness of his vision” (“The Man from the Atom” 62). He continues, “Where he plainly saw pictures and worlds and universes, they vainly groped among pictures of his words on printed pages” (“The Man from the Atom” 62). Upon reading this, I immediately though of the Time Traveler and the information the narrator gives us as we first encounter both him and his outlandish scientific experiments. Wells writes, “The fact is, the Time Traveler was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt that you saw all around him” (The Time Machine 10). In “The Man from the Atom”, it is noted that “the Professor had few friends” (Amazing Stories 62), where we see a similar likeness in The Time Machine. “The serious people who took him seriously never felt quite sure of his deportment: they were somehow aware that trusting their reputations for judgement with him was like furnishing a nursery with eggshell china” (The Time Machine 11). Both intellectual figures in The Time Machine and “The Man from the Atom” are depicted of having both wild ambitions and audience that doesn’t quite understand them, adding a curious dimension as we explore the nature of their inventions.