Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 59.
“[Gyges] eventually found that turning the bezel inwards made him invisible and turning it outwards made him visible. As soon as he realized this, he arranged to be one of the delegates to the king; once he was inside the palace, he seduced the king’s wife and with her help assaulted and killed the king, and so took possession of the throne.
Suppose there were two such rings—one worn by our moral person, the other by the immoral person. There is no one, on this view, who is iron-willed enough to maintain his morality and find the strength of purpose to keep his hands off what doesn’t belong to him, when he is able to take whatever he wants from the market-stalls without fear of being discovered, to enter houses and sleep with whomever he chooses, to kill and to release from prison whomever he chooses, and generally to act like a god among men.”
—Plato, The Republic (translated by Robin Waterfield)
“I looked about me at the hillside, with children playing and girls watching them, and tried to think of all the fantastic advantages an invisible man would have in the world.”
—H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man
The first quote above comes from Plato’s Republic, but don’t read it as Plato’s view. Plato gives those words to his brother, Glaucon, as part of a larger argument about the nature of justice. Per Glaucon, we act morally because we fear punishment. Remove that fear, and morality goes with it. Plato’s Socrates doesn’t buy it, countering with a much more complex definition of justice; we’d be here all day if I tried to sum it up. (And I don’t think I could, anyway.) But it’s tough to dismiss Glaucon’s view. It’s how children act, at least part of the time, and it makes sense to anyone who’s grown a bit suspicious about the innate goodness of humanity. We live as if Glaucon were wrong, but on a bad day, we’re pretty sure he’s right.
Glaucon uses his story of invisibility to make a large point about humanity’s corruptibility. He wasn’t the last to do so, and most subsequent stories about invisibility end up reaching a similar conclusion, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings to Paul Verhoeven’s The Hollow Man to Adam Rifkin’s pseudonymously directed T&A movie The Invisible Maniac. Given the chance, we all turn into invisible bastards. All the above have a more recent common ancestor than Plato, however: H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.
A fascinatingly contradictory character, Wells believed in the betterment and possible perfection of human society through the implementation of Socialist ideals. But most of his best-known books concern humans and society gone horribly wrong, often through the advances of science. Wells imagined the consequences of radiation poisoning years before Hiroshima, and in The Sleeper Awakes, he portrayed a future society in which class divisions have become gulfs. Worse still is the future of The Time Machine, in which those divisions have taken on biological form. Yet for all his liberal notions, Wells’ ideas of worldly perfection under the direction of an all-powerful world government is pretty creepy stuff. Though they took on vastly different subjects, Wells reminds me of Thomas Hardy, a self-described meliorist—meaning he believed in the world’s slow progress toward a better state—whose fiction presented a pessimistic, even fatalistic, vision of life that challenged his professed beliefs.
In The Invisible Man, a scientific advance dredges up the darkness at the soul of a scientist named Griffin, whom we first meet awkwardly checking into an inn in the West Sussex town of Iping. (Thomas Hardy country, as it happens.) Being already invisible, he has a rough time of it. It’s a small town, after all, and it isn’t every day that a man shows up wrapped in bandages. Claiming to be an accident victim, Griffin wants only to be left alone with his experiments. He’s chosen the wrong place, and much of the book’s early section deals with the difficulties that even an invisible man has, trying to keep secrets in a place like Iping. It’s as much comedy as science fiction, and Wells—a writer who usually knows how to keep high-concept storytelling grounded in recognizably human characters—has a pretty good command of small-town types.
But ultimately, Griffin’s situation is no laughing matter. About halfway through the book, after stirring up chaos in Iping and starting tongues wagging about the presence of an invisible man, Griffin finds safe haven at the home of an old colleague named Kemp, to whom he tells the story of how he disappeared. The science has something to do with a secret formula and optical principles that I won’t claim to understand. But the details of how Griffin arrived at his present state are as chilling as the science is opaque. Griffin works first on a cat, with near-complete success:
About two, the cat began miaowing about the room. I tried to hush it by talking to it, and then I decided to turn it out. I remember the shock I had when striking a light—there were just the round eyes shining green—and nothing round them.
When he turns the experiment on himself, it works even better. But then his troubles begin. Though Griffin enjoys some of the advantages he imagines an invisible man capable of enjoying almost immediately, he also enjoys some unexpected disadvantages. He has to be naked, of course, which isn’t such a good thing in an English winter. He can steal, but he has to steal without anyone seeing his prizes moving throughout the air. He can eat whatever he can get his hands on, but he can’t move around until the food gets “assimilated,” or passersby will see a stomach full of sausages and hot cross buns floating through the air.
In short, he can’t partake in any of the comforts of society. For Wells, an invisible man is the ultimate outcast, denied clothing, shelter, food, and all the other basic needs we’ve come to take for granted since we climbed down from the trees. The novel at first reads almost like a parody of Glaucon’s story, but it eventually comes around to making the same point. Though the advantages aren’t what he initially imagined, Griffin soon comes to recognize the upside to living outside the margins, concocting a reign of invisible terror that will give him unlimited power. It doesn’t work out in the end, but Wells still vividly portrays just how scary squaring off against an invisible foe would be.
Whether or not we buy into Glaucon’s pessimism about morality, a stable society requires the constant reaffirmation of what is and isn’t acceptable by everyone within its limits. But you can’t enforce codes on those you can’t see. Harder still: trying to impose them on something that can slit your throat while you sleep. Griffin’s particular type of terror would only be possible with literal invisibility, but it’s easy to step into the metaphor a bit and think of him as a stand-in for everyone who decides to slip outside the boundaries of what society calls right and wrong, and play by different rules. Wells’ England lived in fear of anarchist terrorists, and though that threat may have subsided, the children of that era’s invisible man live on.
A few more things before we go: The Invisible Man has enjoyed a considerable afterlife, inspiring the pretty good Claude Raines-starring/James Whale-directed movie in 1936, as well as other less directly inspired movies. (The movie lets Griffin off the hook a bit, by suggesting the invisibility formula itself has driven him mad, rather than something rotten within his soul.) Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics revive Wells’ protagonist as the ultimate amoral monster, a man who considers himself so outside humanity that he eventually—spoiler!—he tries to sell out to the Martian invaders of Wells’ War Of The Worlds. (To say he eventually pays for the betrayal puts it lightly.) Finally, there’s this segment from Amazon Women On The Moon (yes, that’s Ed Begley Jr.):
Moral of the story: Better be sure you’re invisible before you do that thing you’ve been dying to do. You know the one.
Starswarm, by Brian Aldiss
“The most simple statement you can make is also the most profound: Time passes.”
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
“The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear.”