worldbuilding without fear // The Time Machine

The Time Machine presents a case study in modern encounters with other worlds and how those encounters are interpreted by Western ways of knowing. In telling a story of time travel that relies on the craft of worldbuilding, this story also presents an archetype of a certain science-fictional gesture: worldbuilding as conquest through knowledge.

In chapter 7, the wonder of the time traveler’s intoxicating initial encounter with this strange “new” world subsides as the anxiety of his situation encroaches. His machine has been stolen by the nocturnal, subterranean Morlocks, a kind of allegory for bourgeois anxieties about the revolutionary working class. They took his machine somewhere beneath a large sphinx that sat upon a bronze pedestal. The time traveler reflects,

“At once, like a lash across the face, came the possibility of losing my own age, of being left helpless in this strange new world.”1

Beyond the threshold sphinx, with its cruel mocking face and doors that seem only to open from inside, lay the traveler’s sole means of free travel through worlds. But the machine is not only a means of travel, but a product of scientific knowledge that provides an anchor to the traveler’s own age, his own world. The loss underscores the significance of this world’s estrangement for him, but it also instills in him a new imperative:

“I got up after a time, and began walking aimlessly through the bushes towards the hill again. ‘Patience,’ said I to myself. ‘If you want your machine again you must leave that sphinx alone. If they mean to take your machine away, it’s little good your wrecking their bronze panels, and if they don’t, you will get it back as soon as you can ask for it. To sit among all those unknown things before a puzzle like that is hopeless. That way lies monomania. Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.’ Then suddenly the humour of the situation came into my mind: the thought of the years I had spent in study and toil to get into the future age, and now my passion of anxiety to get out of it. I had made myself the most complicated and the most hopeless trap that ever a man devised. Although it was at my own expense, I could not help myself. I laughed aloud.”

He says to himself, “Face this world.” As the presence of the sphinx suggests, the way into this world is through its riddle. However, for this traveler, this riddle is a cruel and dangerous one. To face the world means to be adequately prepared for danger.

In the following chapter, the time traveler wanders through a museum of curiosities that seem to be evidence of the scientific achievements of his own day, showing that his own present and its prerequisites belongs to the history of this strange world in which he is tenuously stranded. By the end of his journey through the museum, he has acquired (1) key knowedge about the world: the Morlocks’ motivations; and (2) a tool for destroying it: an old box of matches and some fuel to burn. The artifacts and knowledge from his own world provide the means for undoing this other one.

“Still, however helpless the little people in the presence of their mysterious Fear, I was differently constituted. I came out of this age of ours, this ripe prime of the human race, when Fear does not paralyse and mystery has lost its terrors. I at least would defend myself. Without further delay I determined to make myself arms and a fastness where I might sleep. With that refuge as a base, I could face this strange world with some of that confidence I had lost in realising to what creatures night by night I lay exposed. I felt I could never sleep again until my bed was secure from them. I shuddered with horror to think how they must already have examined me.”

The quote above comes from chapter 10, “When Night Came,” which describes a turning point in the novel. The time traveler takes an active role in his encounter with this other world, where before he had been shuttled along passively by each surprising encounter. For him, an active encounter means a violent one, in which he’s the one with the intentional capacity for violence.

For the time traveler, Fear is antithetical to modernity, and it is the result of ignorance and mystery. Modernity, in washing up the allure of mystery, is no longer paralyzed by fear. Mystery and fear produce quiescence. Knowledge, science, and technology produce active, self-interested destruction. Knowledge of the world is equated with the revelation of vulnerability, a revelation made valuable through the exploitation it enables.

I’m preparing to teach a science fiction class this spring, and I’m thinking through the idea of worldbuilding. Science fiction builds worlds and offers readers ways into them. Sometimes, when people talk about the function of science fiction, they talk about how the worlds the stories build offer instructive parallels to our own. The counterfactual, in its prismatic posture toward reality, casts new light on the actual and its tendencies.

The danger, then, is that sci-fi worlds might give the kind of knowledge that makes possible new exploitations, even if through several degrees of abstraction. I’m thinking through what it might mean to read a world in such a way that is antithetical to conquest, especially when those reading practices occur in the context of a university that reproduces violent knowledge for purposes of permanent warfare.

  1. Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. 1895,

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