Thursday, August 23, 2012

But this was not a method, it was an idea - science and The Invisible Man

Here comes science fiction book #3.  Ideally it would round out and definitively prove my arguments about science fiction, but I fear it does not.  The Invisible Man (1897 – I have returned safely to the 19th century) is barely a science fiction novel at all.  I have been calling science fiction a branch of fantasy; the Wells novel at least supports that argument.

Oh sure, there is plenty of science.  Whatta ya call this if not science?

I found a general principle of pigments and refraction – a formula, a geometrical expression involving four dimensions.  Fools, common men, even common mathematicians, do not know anything of what some general expression may mean to the student of molecular physics…  But this was not a method, it was an idea, that might lead to a method by which it would be possible, without changing any other property of matter – except, in some instances colours – to lower the refractive index of a substance, solid or liquid, to that of air – so far as all practical purposes are concerned.  (Ch. 19)

Just ask this scientician! (Warning, the link talks).  The invisible man might as well be a practitioner of alchemy for all it would matter in the novel.  And if Wells had any actual interest in science he would not make the invisible man a sociopath.  That decision kinda narrows the possibilities of the story.

Yet The Invisible Man is an entirely different creature than the kind of dream-fantasy George MacDonald or Lewis Carroll wrote.  The invisibility is magic but once that is granted the rest of the novel proceeds logically.  The section describing Mr. Invisible’s frustration with his superpower is especially amusing:

"I was fasting; for to eat, to fill myself with unassimilated matter, would be to become grotesquely visible again."

"I never thought of that," said Kemp.

"Nor had I.  And the snow had warned me of other dangers.  I could not go abroad in snow – it would settle on me and expose me.  Rain, too, would make me a watery outline, a glistening surface of a man – a bubble.  And fog – I should be like a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity. Moreover, as I went abroad – in the London air – I gathered dirt about my ankles, floating smuts and dust upon my skin.  (Ch. 23)

This, to me, was among the finest inventions in the novel, the image of the ambulatory man-shaped bubble of air pollution (quaintly called “fog” in olden times).  The business about eating refers back to an earlier memorable scene, in which an observer notes  that Mr. Invisible has been eating cheese and bread.  Ick!  Fortunately the superpower conceals his excretory tract.  Our standards of permissibility have made one of the novel’s shocks invisible.  I do not know another Victorian novel that spends so much time emphasizing – concealing but by concealing revealing – digestion and male nudity.

The face of Mr. Cuss was angry and resolute, but his costume was defective, a sort of limp white kilt that could only have passed muster in Greece. "Hold him!" he bawled. "He's got my trousers! And every stitch of the Vicar's clothes!"  (Ch. 12)

The invisible man flees the dangerous city for an English village, which is where the real fun lies.  He is, at his worst, just one naked maniac, but he acts as a chaos seed in the quiet, orderly villages.  Coordination against him is impossible, plans collapse, and no one seems to realize that blankets would make decent weapons.

I suppose The War of the Worlds (1898) repeats the idea.  In both novels, the peaceful English countryside is disrupted; in one case the threat is small, in the other enormous.  Comic rather than sublime.  Blissfully free of ideas, except perhaps that the English villager will, after several clumsy missteps, come through in the end.

16 comments:

  1. I haven't read the book, but I'm fascinated by the idea of this science that makes makes you exist visibly as your, I don't know what the word is here: adulterations. If you had a tattoo, would they be able to see the ink? Would you be a floating outline of a skull with Mother written underneath? What if you were pregnant, would they be able to see the baby?

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  2. Now this is the way to develop a conceit! Wells should have made the invisibility infectious to test the possibilities. People who are floating gold teeth and hip replacements. Maybe they did not have the latter back then. Earrings and wigs.

    Of course, few non-sociopaths would use their invisibility as an excuse to wander around naked all the time. They'd wear sandals, at least, and some sort of digestive wrap following meals.

    The novel does include an invisible cat, but I do not feel Wells has done it justice. Someone should write a short novel from the cat's point of view.

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    1. People who were proud of their appearances would have to re-learn themselves. My beautiful moustache is gone. How will I cope? But here's compensation: I can pick my nose in public and nobody sees. People might personalise their wraps with pictures of ideal faces; it's like having a fake name online. A woman wears a man's face and the cat is a dog. You could write a prince and the pauper story. Beautiful Lady Abigail looks the same now as Plain Anna the serving maid. For the first time everybody notices that Plain Anna has a beautiful voice. She organises a company, she streamlines the production of digestion-wraps, she is a success. Lady Abigail is ignored, she gets caught in a fire and nobody can save her because they don't know where she is. People start suing one another for the right to wear specific faces. Half of them want to be Oscar Wilde, the other half want to be Queen Victoria. The Zoologicals appear -- a group of people who wear animal faces. They're anarchists.

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    2. This is a novel I would like to read.

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    3. In the meantime, you might enjoy Boris Vian's 1949 story "L'Amour est aveugle," in which an opaque aphrodisiac fog descends on Paris, leading to certain social changes.

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  3. Let's name the cat Vinegar. "Vinegar was full of vim and vigor. The internal vim reflected faintly in the evening light. The vigor, of course, was invisible, but sparkles of the vim moved about the room at such a frantic pace, that the presence of vigor was clear, if not apparent."

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    1. And...we have a Bulwer-Lytton contest winner.

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  4. "You don't mean to say there's an invisible cat at large!" said Kemp.

    An Invisible Cat at Large is not a bad title for the novel. First of a series, now that I think of it. Vinegar the invisible cat very likely solves mysteries. Combats Jack the Ripper and Dracula. Teams up with Sherlock Holmes. Ah - the cat actually cracks the cases, then invisibly directs Holmes to the clues. Something like that.

    You are right about the vim. In a nice touch by Wells, Mr. Invisible fails to make the cat completely invisible. The tapetum remains visible.

    "And after all the rest had faded and vanished, there remained two little ghosts of her eyes."

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    1. There's already a genre (or sub-genre, maybe) of cat detective fiction, so I think this idea will work. "Vinegar" is a good name for a cat. She won't respond to "Vinnie" or "Vin."

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  5. An invisible naked sociopath, I love it! I have not read this one but it sounds like a hoot. Will you be reading War of the Worlds? I read it not all that long ago and found it much less satisfying that the movies that have been made of it. Plus some of the things Wells comes up with and has his characters say are just plain weird.

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  6. Leopoldo Lugones is full of that scientician approach to describing science. I haven't read this book, but the phobia about the visibility of physical processes (and physical bodies) and the sublimation of such phobias just seems pure Victoriana. It sounds like a hilariously warped way to consider the hypothetical complications of invisibility.

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  7. I used to be amazed and confounded by the cat mysteries, but now that we have pie-making mysteries, "bath and body" mysteries, quilting mysteries, golem and strudel mysteries, etc. etc. the cat mysteries seem almost sensible.

    I did read War of the Worlds. Here are my posts by organized by genre:

    The novel as ecosystem fiction.
    As invasion fiction.
    As destroyed city fiction.

    And then I used it for a sort of formalist analysis of plot.

    The characters in War of the Worlds are pretty poor. They are much better in Invisible Man. Wells has to populate his villages with better characters for the idea to work.

    Scott - First, Lugones does sound good. Second, pure Victoriana, yes, which makes it a strangely charming thriller.

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  8. How could I have forgotten/ missed those? off to go read...

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  9. i can think of many legitimate reasons.

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  10. I'm always reminded of a routine by Peter Cook, in which he worries that other movies may be filled with "ghastly invisible nudists."

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  11. That is really funny. Well, Peter Cook, right?

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