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.