BEWARE THE ORIGINAL MAD SCIENTIST
H. G. Wells
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Date: 31st March 2005 (First Published 1897)
There is a compelling case to be made that H.G. Wells is the most influential science fiction author of all time, ahead of such luminaries as Verne, Clarke and Asimov. Despite his notable limitations as a fiction writer, he was an exceptionally creative and original storyteller with an imagination unrivalled by his peers. Many of his ideas were truly ahead of their time. While it may be difficult to categorically state which of his published stories should be considered his definitive work (as there are several candidates), his 1897 novella, The Invisible Man, is arguably his best known work. It has been a hugely influential book, spawning numerous adaptations in other mediums, and been a source of inspiration to countless other writers. Little wonder that over a century after its first publication the story continues to be reprinted to this day.
Fittingly, coming from such a pioneering author, The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (to give the book its full original title) is one of the earliest, if not the first example of the “Mad Scientist” trope: the conceit of the man of science who is so consumed by whether or not it is possible to accomplish a particular goal through science, he doesn’t stop to think about the possible negative ramifications of doing so, or wilfully chooses to ignore the potential consequences, which invariably results in disastrous outcomes. The invisible man of the story is just such a scientist—someone whose single-mindedness and lack of foresight, in regards to his quest to achieve invisibility, leads him to recklessly experiment on himself before he has devised a way to reverse the process. The book’s plot charts the increasingly desperate efforts of the invisible man to make himself visible again.
Though the craft of fiction writing was Wells’ most significant weakness as an author, his decision to write the story from the point of view of a third person narrator recounting events, after the fact, from second hand sources and hearsay, rather than first hand, proves to be very effective. As so little is revealed by the narrator about the invisible man, in terms of his inner thoughts, motivations or back-story (even his name, revealed to be Griffin, isn’t mentioned until late in proceedings), it forces the reader to make judgements about him based solely on his reported actions. This is possibly unfair in light of the fact that there is no way to be certain if the third person narrator is reliable or not. But it does lead to a number of thought-provoking questions about Griffin and his behaviour.
From the outset Griffin is depicted as a disagreeable, even unreasonable individual, which is initially understandable given the lengths he has to go to in order to conceal his predicament. But as the story progresses he becomes an entirely unsympathetic protagonist, as his obvious desperation to reverse his invisibility coincides with his increasingly erratic, ill-tempered conduct.
Due in large part to the lack of insight provided into his character, questions inevitably arise as to whether Griffin’s unhinged, and eventually murderous actions are a side effect of the process that made him invisible, or if it’s just symptomatic of his pre-existing personality. Certainly, Griffin comes across as a big time dick throughout the book, so it wouldn’t be unwarranted for readers to view his behaviour as akin to modern day internet trolls whose disruptive trolling activities can be attributed to the anonymity of not being seen by their victims, allowing them to behave in a fashion they wouldn’t dare otherwise; a view which is given some credence once Griffin goes on the rampage only after he has shed his disguise as a disfigured accident victim, embracing his invisibility, allowing him to terrorise the population of a small English town, unseen.
In the years since its initial publication, several academics have taken to highlighting the flaws in the science of Wells’ novella. Such nitpicking, though interesting from a scientific point of view, is ultimately irrelevant in the scheme of things as it has no bearing on the principle point to be derived from the story. And while it may or not have been Wells’ intention to make the following observation about the human condition, The Invisible Man does provide a clear, albeit extreme, illustration of some people’s propensity to engage in behaviour they wouldn’t ordinarily engage in when they cannot be seen by other people.
The one genuine flaw with the story is exhibited in Wells’ prose. Despite its status as a classic work of science fiction, it is hard to read The Invisible Man and not wonder how much better a story it would be if written by a more gifted wordsmith who could bless the narrative with stronger descriptive writing and more compelling characterisation. Someone like Jacqueline Carey or Guy Gavriel Kay, for example. But as the novella is in the public domain, there is no reason why a contemporary author couldn’t attempt to write a superior work, other than the obvious misgivings about re-working a book that is rightly held to be a classic.
In closing, The Invisible Man, much like the rest of Wells’ science fiction output is a great story that is somewhat marred by weak writing. Nonetheless, it is a thought-provoking and original tale, featuring a memorable, though unlikeable protagonist. A story that has been, and continues to be, very influential. Any reader with an interest in science fiction literature should certainly read the book at least once, as Wells and his stories are required reading for serious fans of the genre.