Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

Slapstick before science
In the village of Iping in West Sussex, England, a stranger shows up at the door of the local inn. After coming in from the cold to rest beside the fire, he refuses to remove his overcoat and gloves. While this in itself may not be so unusual, the stranger’s face is almost completely obscured by a wide-brimmed hat, dark glasses, beard, and a wrapping of bandages around his head. The curious locals, surprised by this concealment, assume the stranger has some hideous disfigurement and allow him his privacy. After a short time lodging in the inn, however, he begins to show erratic behavior and becomes more difficult to ignore. He seems to be conducting scientific experiments in his room. What could this peculiar man be up to?

The first several chapters of H. G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man, originally published in 1897, have the makings of a well-crafted mystery story, but for the fact that the title of the book gives away the big secret. There’s an invisible man on the loose, of course. When the locals finally discover this, a series of chase scenes follows in which the villagers stumble over one another in pursuit of their slippery foe while marveling at objects floating in mid-air and falling prey to blows from unseen fists. All this is rendered in the slapstick style of an old Keystone Cops film. While Wells’ earlier novels The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau worked hard to establish a theoretical basis for their incredible premises, the author makes little attempt to do the same in The Invisible Man. There’s only one chapter in the middle of the book in which the science of light and optics is discussed, but much of the phenomenon of the title character’s transparency is merely left unexplained. The last few chapters of the book take a turn for the better, as Wells switches to a darker and more suspenseful tone. If only the whole book had been written in this manner. Instead, too many chapters are wasted on frivolous humor that only seems hackneyed and obvious to today’s reader.

Wells was not the first author to write about invisibility, but his take on the subject was original enough to spawn countless imitations and film adaptations. Today’s reader, having no doubt seen more than a few of such movies, will find that reading Wells’ descriptions of floating pistols and disembodied voices just can’t compete with actually seeing such images brought to life through the visual wonder of special effects. The story would have improved immensely if Wells had delved deeper into the theoretical concepts behind visibility and invisibility. The book needs more scenes in the laboratory and fewer silly chases through the streets of Iping. In his better works, Wells has proven to be a visionary who’s capable of making the impossible seem plausible, even when the scientific basis behind his theories may seem antiquated by 21st-century standards. The Invisible Man, however, is not one of his better works. There’s just not enough science in this science fiction. For a better fictional take on the science of invisibility, see Jack London’s short story of 1903, “The Shadow and the Flash.”

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