Reading The Invisible Man is a depressing experience.
HG Wells was one of sf's initiators and innovators. At the end of the 19th Century, he wrote several books whose titles still resound: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man. At the beginning of the 21st, wouldn't it be great if these books retained their power?
Sadly, this one doesn't. It may have been one of the pioneering works of science fiction, but, a century later, the science seems silly and the fiction is old-fashioned in all the worst ways.
The story is simple and straightforward. A stranger arrives in a village, where he books a private room in the pub. His behaviour intrigues the locals. He is foul-tempered and rude, and never removes the bandages covering his face. He remains confined to his room, working on mysterious experiments. We gradually discover that he is a scientist who has made himself invisible, and is now desperately trying to regain visibility. He fails, goes on the rampage, and terrorises the surrounding countryside. He kills, and is killed.
There's one obvious reason for the novel's lack of potency: it is a victim of its own success. The invisible man's story has become embedded in our culture, and offers no surprises.
Beyond the mere facts of the narrative, there's a tiresome familiarity to the tone and telling of the story. Wells created a genre, and his creativity has been picked over a thousand times by his disciples and imitators. His stylistic tricks have been developed, refined and improved. His themes and action now seem hackneyed. His original work reads like a feeble imitation of its imitators.
However, the problem is deeper than mere familiarity. Wells seems to have had no interest in psychological insight or development. He has a straightforward moral to offer - science without humanity equals pain and destruction - but he makes no effort to investigate or balance his ideas. He favours neatness over complexity. He prefers action to thought. The jokes are lame, and much of the writing is careless.
The Invisible Man was initially serialised in a weekly magazine, and Wells may never suspected that it would last longer than the cheap paper on which it was printed. Perhaps this is the best way to think of it: the Arnie movie of its day. Two hours of mindless entertainment. However, a century from now, no-one is going to be issuing reverential reprints of Arnie movies. At least, let's hope not.
If you're fascinated by HG Wells or the evolution of science fiction, The Invisible Man is worth reading. If not, then its advantages - brevity and a great title - won't compensate for its failings.
One other thing. This edition has a cover which is elegant and evocative, but uses the wrong name for the pub which features in the novel (the Dog and Groom rather than the Coach and Horses). I wouldn't usually care about such a pernickety mistake, but it is emblematic of the carelessness to be found throughout the edition. It's a Gollancz reprint of an Everyman text, and features three different typefaces. There are asterisks in the text, but the accompanying notes have been cut. Such shoddy treatment would be understandable in a cheap edition which cost a quid or two, but you'll have to shell out £6.99 for this SF Masterwork. Don't bother.
Review by Josh Lacey.
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© Josh Lacey 26 January 2002