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The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells - Sci-Fi Classic Review

The Invisible Man
Wells' OG cover

A mysterious stranger has arrived in the simple countryside village of Iping, covered from head to toe in heavy clothes and bandages. He locks himself in his rented room with crates full of chemicals and scientific equipment, but before long, a bizarre robbery at the vicarage forces a confrontation that ends in violence and mass panic when the man removes his bandages to reveal that he is more ephemeral than a ghost. What follows is a dangerous chase from town to town, with the invisible man growing increasingly unstable and committed to launching a reign of terror in order to revenge himself upon a world that refuses to bend to his will.

H.G. Wells would, late in his career, consider his third science-fiction novel, The Invisible Man, one of his most accessible stories, a good starting point for newcomers to his work. It was apparently inspired by a parable from Plato's Republic about a ring that would make its wearer invisible and corrupt him with "the powers of a god" (the "Ring of Gyges," which might have also inspired Tolkein, though there is a lot of debate on the matter). For Plato, it was a simple thought experiment designed to answer the age-old philosophical question of man's true nature, whether a man would devolve to savagery when stripped of the consequences of his actions.

For Wells, though, this isn't exactly how things play out. In The Invisible Man, when we eventually get the titular character's name and backstory, it is clear that the invisible man, Griffin, has always had a warped sense of morality, stealing from his father and showing no remorse for the man's subsequent suicide even before turning invisible. Wells had tipped his hat towards Rousseau's view on man's beastly nature in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and this reads like he wasn't particularly interested in doing it again, instead choosing to focus on how the world would react to something so fantastic.

The Invisible Man
Although this doesn't happen in the book, it's probably my favorite cover

Wells frequently shied away from the label "science-fiction," preferring to think of works like The Invisible Man as fantasy. However, for my money, if there's a second genre to which The Invisible Man belongs, it is clearly horror. It rests side-by-side on the same shelf as such sci-fi/horror greats of the Nineteenth Century as Frankenstein and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, following a similar pattern to each. Though I wouldn't call it gothic, Wells still infuses his story with the same sense of lingering dread he managed in The Island of Dr. Moreau, though he enhances it even further by switching to a predominantely third-person voice.

For the first half of the novel, Wells carefully avoids letting readers into his monster's invisible head, choosing to let the mystery of what has happened to him and what he's going to do next drive the tale. Readers know exactly what he is--it's in the title of the book--but Wells dangles it like a carrot as the characters of the novel slowly come to understand him. It's a masterful execution of suspense, and the fact that there is no true protagonist or narrator gives the reader the impression that anyone could at any time fall victim to Griffin's violent whims.

Thus, when he finally has a chance to tell his story late in the novel, the readers are shown just how terrifying the invisible man really is, how selfish and unfeeling he has always been, and how he has been driven to megalomania and thoughts of murder. Wells walks a delicate tightrope, ensuring that readers understand Griffin without losing the sense that he is the villain, before once again releasing him into the wild to become both hunter and hunted. There are sympathetic elements to his backstory--he's an albino who has always been treated as something of an outsider, for example--but by showing things like Griffin torturing a cat and casually disregarding what happened to it afterwards, Wells keeps readers always at a distance from him. (Incidentally, I wonder if the invisible cat influenced George Langelaan's "The Fly" or its 1958 film adaptation.)

The Invisible Man
This, on the other hand, does happen

As for how people react, they are slow to accept the reality of Griffin's unseeable visage, with most characters dismissing it as a magic trick, even those who have had physical interaction with him. The main story is set in a series of sleepy villages, with a population that is quick to spread rumors but slow to react to anything out of its boring, quiet routine. The invisible man is a blasphemous intruder into their solitude, and no one can rest easy until this cancer is removed.

That is not to say the townsfolk aren't sympathetic. They are simply human, reacting in the ways you'd imagine them to. Wells considered himself an agnostic when it came to whether to treat the world with optimism or cynicism, hoping to instead reflect the messy reality, as he does here. There are heroic figures, just as there are scoundrels, but no one character stands out as exceptionally noble or exceptionally evil, aside from Griffin. When they finally rally in the climax to stop the invisible man once and for all, they don't do it as a pitchforked mob chasing down Frankenstein's creature. Rather, they have been pushed as far as they can go by this violent madman and are defending themselves and their town without ignorance or excessive malice.

As such, Wells again displays a remarkable ability to make his stories seem terrifyingly plausible, even as he relies on the most preposterous of conceits. Jules Verne always seems to get the credit for being the true futurist of the age, but Wells understood humanity in a way Verne never could. Therefore, I can't disagree with H.G.: if you're looking for a way into his body of work, The Invisible Man is a decent place to start.

-e. magill 9/19/2019

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