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Book Ramblings

Long winded reviews

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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man - H.G. Wells “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.”

“You make the glass invisible by putting it into a liquid of nearly the same refractive index; a transparent thing becomes invisible if it is put in any medium of almost the same refractive index. And if you will consider only a second, you will see also that the powder of glass might be made to vanish in air, if its refractive index could be made the same as that of air; for then there would be no refraction or reflection as the light passed from glass to air.”

H.G. Wells is not merely the forefather of science fiction, he is also the forefather of hard science fiction. I think he explains his science and pseudoscience better than most of today’s sci-fi authors.

One thing that bothers me about the concept of an invisible man in general is that they seem to be considered as more of an unstoppable threat than they need to be. If I can go a little off tangent for a sec, the idea occurred to me while I was watching The Hollow Man. While the psychopathic invisible man goes on a rampage, everybody is whirling around trying to protect themselves. When the invisible man is coming at them why does it not occur to any of them to render him visible by throwing – say – a bucket of paint, a bag of flour, ink or even a goddam cup of coffee over him or his general direction? Even Wells does not consider this line of defense even though he does deal with the issue a little in this passage:

“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.”

Unfortunately Wells does not do anything with this observation; no wonder Mr. Invis (his name is actually “Griffin”) runs rings around the hapless cops and everybody else. The smartest “good guy” in the book suggests everybody in the country locking their food away to starve him out, sniffer dogs, powdered glass and whatnot when all they is to do some literal mud slinging. If he is coming to the house scatter lots of flour or sand all over the floor etc. The fact that nobody makes an effort to render him visible in some way seriously weakens the book for me; after all science fiction is all about exploration of ideas and possibilities, taking things to their logical conclusion*. The way the invisible man is finally dealt with is not very impressive.

The Invisible Man is one of Wells’ less epic works I think, but many of the negative GR reviews I have read seem to ignore the fact that Wells imagined the concept in 1897! It is easy to dismiss such a commonplace sci-fi /fantasy trope today but Wells pioneered it along with other sci-fi staples like alien invasion, time traveling and genetic engineering. He may not have invented all these concepts himself but he was (probably) the first to use them in fiction. Seriously, do not badmouth H.G. Wells.

How about themes, motifs and subtexts then eh? I have pondered long and hard and I conclude that summer is the best season for invisibility. So if you are going to go for an extreme transparency makeover do it in summer or you will catch your death! I am also concerned about Griffin’s invisible cat which remains at large. Actually one interesting theme is how adaptable the British public seems to be about “weird shit going down” such as the advent of an invisible man. They are all happy to lock up their food and find ways of depriving him of his sleep etc. Making him visible is probably not cricket.

In any case – despite its logical flaw – The Invisible Man is a lot of fun, definitely worth a read, and it won’t take up much of your time.

The original title of the book is “The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance”. Obviously the word “romance” here is not referring to holding hands and red roses, the older meaning of “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.” seems to apply. As for “grotesque”, Griffin (Mr. Invis) would not seem grotesque by today’s standard, “badass” would probably be a more contemporary adjective.

* I am also a little uncomfortable with the idea of Griffin running about au naturale, penduluming outrageously. I think he should wear a little thong at least, surely most people won't notice a little thong floating about.

I listened to the free Librivox audiobook of The Invisible Man very nicely read by Ms. Cate Barratt. Thank you!