First some backstory:
I really found Science Fiction in grad school. Prior to that, I’d read the odd book here and there that is classified as SF/F– The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time in middle school, Frankenstein in high school and then again in college, Slaughterhouse Five in college– but Science Fiction was never really presented to me as a genre for study until I got to Goddard College for my MFA in Writing. There, I decided that the novel I was writing for my thesis was technically alternate history, and the always wonderful Rebecca Brown handed me The Man in the High Castle.
Or, rather, she told me to put it on my reading list for the semester. So I did, and I adored it, and I have been devouring SF/F, but mostly SF, ever since. (No offense, Fantasy folks! I like the occasional fantasy but it doesn’t click the way SF or even general Spec Fic or Weird Fic clicks for me.) I discovered Book Twitter, and various book blogs, and eventually broke down and got myself a Goodreads when my mental TBR list got out of hand.
As a result, though, I’ve read a lot of new SF/F and glossed over a lot of the foundations on which the genre is built. This could be good or bad, depending on who you ask. Good, because as we reevaluate what we, as readers, find acceptable, or not, a lot of the dead white dude canon is increasingly problematic. Bad, because like them or not, the canon is a thing because it’s a recognized progression of a genre. Which is not to say that the canon should be a set, rigid thing, because it most definitely shouldn’t. And that, at long last, brings me to what the hell I’m doing here:
The purpose of this blog series is work my way through the SF Canon for myself, teach myself the foundations of the genre, explore “overlooked” canon authors that I’ve never encountered and then decide if a particular work deserves, in my opinion, to remain “classic” or if we should blast it into spaaaaace! I am also a sucker for puns, so there’s that, too.
First up: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells.
Not War of the Worlds, you ask? No, because I did actually read that one in grad school and I didn’t want to read it again. It’s that good.
It’s not the worst, really, but there is far more commentary on British Colonialism and far fewer explosive alien battles than Tom Cruise movie trailers had led me to believe. Disappointed!
The Invisible Man is about, you guessed it, an invisible man! Well done, you.
Griffin is a student of some indeterminate science at some indeterminate university who has managed to turn himself invisible. The unfortunate side effect is that it’s permanent, and, he discovers, it’s actually kind of hard to be an invisible man. Especially in winter. This doesn’t stop him from taking full advantage of his situation by robbing, maiming and killing people while he’s invisible, ostensibly in his desperate quest to reverse his situation, but really, it seems like he enjoys it more than he should.
He’d be able to get away with it, too, if he had any kind of stealth. He does not, however, and here we find our story as he ends up on the run, wreaking havoc across England and trying to blackmail a tramp into carrying his books (which contain the formula, in code, naturally) to a safe place so that no one else gets their hands on his amazing invisibility. Because, he claims, people would use it for evil, a thesis that he effectively proves himself.
Everything comes to a head when the invisible man accidentally stumbles into his old school friend’s house (convenient, that) and in some rather lengthy and dry exposition explains his whole sad backstory complete with questionable science.
I’ll give H. G. a pass on the doesn’t-quite-work science because he does make it a point of conflict that the invisible man’s food is not invisible until it’s fully digested, so he has to either starve or lay low for a few hours so he’s not just a puddle of levitating chewed food walking down the street. No one thinks of that when they’re deciding on which super power they’d like.
The Invisible Man is at its core an exploration of humanity, and what it means to be a functioning member of society. I mean, at its true core it’s a science fiction flavored adventure story, because this was the age of Strand and serials. But H.G. seemed to be a thoughtful guy, so I think a certain amount of moralizing is accurate.
Griffin finds that invisibility isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, because he’s awfully lonely, not being able to interact with anyone. It’s a struggle to meet his basic needs of food, clothes and shelter. Also, it’s damn cold to be naked in the snow.
A lot of my secondary reading about this story brought up Plato’s fable The Ring of Gyges. I read that so you don’t have to… you’re welcome. Talk about dense. It made me appreciate Wells’ fairly straightforward writing style. The Ring of Gyges is about a shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He gets it off Craigslist from a guy with the username Sauron, I think? Anyway, the shepherd gets the power of invisibility, declares himself spokesperson for the shepherds (this is apparently a real job in ancient Greece), goes to the king, kills him, sleeps with his wife and takes over the kingdom.
The argument that Glaucon (Greek fellow telling the story to Plato) makes is that when presented with the opportunity to do bad things, without fear of consequences–which are arbitrarily determined by a society and labeled ‘laws’ and ‘justice’– mankind will invariably do bad things. Griffin seems to prove this point, but since it’s a small sample size I’d argue that it’s not conclusive. Griffin is pretty much a jerk the whole time and I think he’d continue to be one, whether he was invisible or not. Further, Wells clearly doesn’t agree with Glaucon, because of the punishment that he doles out for Griffin by way of an ending:
**SPOILERS IN WHITE TEXT BELOW**
Griffin is eventually captured, after a terrorizing rampage on his friend Kemp and the townspeople, and because mob mentality forms from fear, he is beaten to death by people who can’t see him. There is a weirdly relevant moral here, in 2018, as we have discussions as a society about police brutality and excessive force.
Only after he is dead does the invisibility wear off, which is more questionable science, but an ironic little twist that I liked.
**SPOILERS END HERE**
On the whole, The Invisible Man is not a great book. Still, H. G. Wells brings his serial game because I kept reading. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the book, and I especially didn’t like Griffin, but I kept turning pages. I was invested in what happened next, and the overall idea of the thing, more than the actual character arc of the invisible man.
So does this book deserve to remain in the canon?
I’m going to choose to canon blast it.
Instead, I’d recommend the inclusion of Martha Wells’
–Major side note: Did not realize until right this second that the book with which I’d planned on replacing H.G. was by a woman also named Wells!–
Check out All Systems Red by Martha Wells. I’ll probably recommend the entire Rogue Protocol series, but so far I’ve only read the first two. Murderbot is an amazing character. They are, well, a Murderbot– an A.I. designed as a security tool for large corporations with an incredible capacity to kill and destroy. But the series begins with Murderbot having hacked their own systems and gone “rogue.”
Murderbot and Griffin are similar in that Murderbot, in their security gear, looks exactly the same as all the other security units. They are essentially invisible because they are overlooked as objects and property, where Griffin is actually invisible to the human eye. What separates them is that what follows for Murderbot is a tremendous amount of soul searching and empathy and growth across several novellas. I never felt like I got that out of The Invisible Man.
Out the air-lock it goes.
Stay tuned next month and we’ll canon blast Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.
Two final side notes: the canon that I read will be in no particular order. I considered going chronologically, but honestly it’s going to be easier to read whatever I happen to get my hands on or be in the mood for in any given month.
Second, and lastly, this blog has nothing at all to do with the rum of a similar name. Sorry if you got this far and didn’t realize that. That kind of cannon has two ns. Cheers.