Friday, October 5, 2012

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man
by H. G. Wells
Published in 1897

Eric Rabkin's class Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, The Modern World includes two H. G. Wells books. The Invisible Man occupies an odd place in our culture. It's a very well-known trope, but not a very well-known story. Everybody with even a passing familiarity with the science fiction genre has a mental image of the fully bandaged Invisible Man, unwinding his layers of gauze to reveal... nothing. But relatively few people know what the actual plot of the original novel is, or even if the Invisible Man is a good guy or a bad guy in this, his first incarnation.

As H. G. Wells writes it, the Invisible Man (who is named Griffin) is a bad guy, a sociopath who shows no remorse for his actions, even though he injures (and kills) many innocent people and is indirectly responsible for his father's death.

But he is a supervillain with a poorly chosen superpower. A theme of Wells' novel is that invisibility, if one can't cease to be invisible, is exceptionally overrated. Griffin is incapable of passing for a normal person, and the disadvantages of being invisible greatly outweigh the advantages. He can't walk down a city street without being inadvertently injured by people who can't see him. He can't carry anything without giving away his presence and attracting attention to himself. He is good at two things, sneaking up on people and getting away afterwards, but this doesn't outweigh the tremendous disadvantages that his 'power' carries.

And yet Griffin thinks he can set himself up as a master supervillain and tries to institute a 'Reign of Terror'. He is defeated, in the end, by ordinary English villagers (speaking phonetically-written English local dialect) who coordinate and work together to bring him down.

This book, the original version of the 'Invisible Man' trope, contains some fun little details that didn't always become well-known. For example, Griffin's is able to turn himself invisible because he's an albino. Otherwise, the invisibility process wouldn't have worked on the pigmentation in his skin, eyes, and hair, making him semi-visible. An early experiment of his was on a white cat with green eyes. He successfully turned the cat invisible -- except for the green eyes.

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