Friday, November 6, 2020

"The Invisible Man," by H.G. Wells--Fiction Review

So we’ve all had that conversation, “what would you take, invisibility, or the ability to fly?” The subtext always being, which of us are perverts and who has road rage? What—that isn’t how everyone else thinks about it? Oh, it’s just me. Yinz guys are just a bunch of liars! I’m sorry—I let my Pittsburgh show there for a moment. Anyway, today’s review is “The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells, a classic in science fiction and a bit of horror too.


H.G. Wells


***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***


What I love about this book:

One of the reasons I love Science Fiction is because often it can help you look at some topic in a new and novel way. Sometimes, though, exactly what you think would happen is what happens, and that’s satisfying too—such as in this novel—a guy finds a way to become invisible and quickly becomes a criminal. Despite what Harry Potter might argue, let’s be real, there are very few applications for the power of invisibility that are moral.

That said, this is one of those unusual books where the plot’s protagonist is also the story’s villain, which certainly isn’t unheard of, but it’d be hard to argue that most protagonists aren’t the heroes of their stories. I like this uncommon form of plotting, simply because it isn’t used all that often. My favorite book to do this is Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend,” and don’t you go thinking that the Will Smith movie can work as a substitute. That movie misses the whole point of the novel.

Griffin, the Invisible man himself, pioneered this particular character of “The Invisible Man,” and the concept remains popular even today. Certainly, Hollywood has created several movies inspired by the character. There is a certain amount of fun to be had imagining for a moment if you could be invisible. 


What I don’t love about this book:

Griffin is also a mad scientist, something that was popular in the era H.G. Wells was writing, and again is still popular today. I don’t like the “mad scientist” archetype. You know what scientists are mostly? Nerds who just want to figure out how things work. They aren’t generally nefarious people seeking to destroy or conquer the world—not to say that there haven’t been examples to the contrary.

To build on this point, I’m generally not a fan of any plot device that rests on the existential fears that can be summed up as, “look at what the evils of SCIENCE have brought down upon us!” I don’t like this because that’s what real anti-science people are always arguing, sidestepping the history that before we approached life and society from a more scientific approach, most of us tended to live short and miserable lives. So while a classic science experiment gone amok story, like “The Invisible Man” can be fun, it also has that unpleasant odor of, “see, if that man was less curious about the mysteries of the universe, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”   

 

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***


The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story begins with a  stranger checking into an inn, covered head to toe in bandages so that no one can see even a speck of his flesh. It’s assumed the stranger, Griffin, has had some sort of awful surgery, hence the bandages.

Little disturbances start to crop up, involving the new tenant of the inn. One day he gets an unusual shipment containing a plethora of strange bottles filled with unusual reagents. Not wanting to be disturbed from his experiments, for even a moment, Griffin is often very rude and brisk with anyone who might encounter him. This is where the outright criminality starts, and Griffin uses his unique “condition” to break into a house with an aim to rob the place because he’s running out of money.

Eventually, his secret is revealed—or rather unrevealed—to the inn owner when she tries to get him to pay and clear out. Griffin demonstrates his total invisibility and is subsequently run out of town. He blackmails a man named Marvel—basically, a do what I say or I’ll straight-up murder you situation—to go back into town on Griffin’s behalf to recover his notebooks. Marvel ends up just stealing the books and runs off to another town. 

Griffin, still on the run, ends up hiding out in a house that belongs to a Dr. Kemp, who was an acquaintance of Griffin back when he was a medical student. While there, Griffin explains how he managed to make himself invisible in the first place and that so far, he can’t reverse the process.

It becomes increasingly clear that whatever process that made Griffin invisible in the first place—or maybe just the fact of the state of it itself—has made Griffin unhinged. He wants Kemp to help him with his “reign of terror” that he plans to enact on the country at large. When Kemp refuses, Griffin vows to make Kemp the first victim of his “reign of terror.” He makes a good go of it but is ultimately unsuccessful, and then gets surrounded by an angry mob and is ultimately beaten to death, and in death, becomes visible again. 

In the end, we find out that Marvel has become a successful business owner and still has Griffin’s notes. He spends his free time trying to decipher them and recreate Griffin’s experiment, despite his ignorance and the apparent danger. 
 

Analysis:

As one of the fathers of science fiction, Wells’ characters and stories are some of the most foundational of the genre. Many ideas and tropes in Sci-Fi got their start in books such as this and “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” Even though technology has moved on, these stories still have a lot of power and are compelling, if anachronistic, reads today.

The tension of this story is all a meditation on power and the exclusivity of that power. Griffin is the only person, ever, to achieve total invisibility. He has no contemporaries and no rivals who share his advantage over the rest of us, and with such power, it isn’t all too surprising that he concludes that he’s above our laws. Like the old clich├ęd adage says: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It’s hinted that the process of becoming invisible is what unseated Griffin’s mind, but I prefer to look at it more as once invisible, that anonymity became seductive to him. Anonymity is a kind of power, one we see internet trolls exploit every day. Of course, if I’m honest, it behooves me to point out that it is my bias to say that the technology to become invisible in this story was created by a bad man, and not that the technology made a good man bad. 


Parting thoughts:

Earlier in this review, I pointed out that I don’t like mad scientist characters and experiments gone amok stories all that much because I feel they feed into an anti-science narrative. I don’t want there to be any confusion. I do not believe that Wells was writing out of a fearful distrust of science. The man was a futurist, after all. I think he wrote this book and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” this way because he was attempting to sell novels to an audience who could be described as still profoundly concerned about technology and its possible consequences.

Real anti-science people propose a return to a way of life reminiscent of the dark ages, where again, most of us likely wouldn’t live all too long. They view the forces and vagaries of nature, not as random events dictated by unthinking chance and coincidence but as part of some greater plan—and furthermore, it isn’t our place to question that plan.

This is precisely how the clergy of every religion, at one point or another in history, controlled the populace, often to that populace’s detriment. As special go-between men—and it was usually men throughout history—between us commoners and the Divine, the clergy would have us believe that their word was as good as the Divine. They’d also prefer you not to question that point too hardily or why the sacred text is often only provided in a language, such as Latin, and as a consequence is only to be intelligible to them. And even when it is updated, it is often presented in language choice so arcane that it’s too frustrating to read, which can’t be updated, because as the argument goes, those are God’s words, and he meant them to be unalterable. Except for all the points in time when they were altered. Shut up and go fight another crusade for us. Furthermore, it would be best if you died gloriously on the field of battle after murdering countless apostates and infidels, in the name of Jesus Christ, who cherished peace and love above all else and whose father once commanded, “Thou shalt not kill.”

An agnostic myself, I don’t pretend to know if there is or isn’t a God. I am certain that I don’t believe any other flawed person, or their specific book on the topic, can tell me much about him, her, or it. If you believe in the Divine, I think that should be a personal choice, and it’s my opinion that it should also be a personal relationship between you and the Divine.

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