Book Review: The Invisible Man

Book Review: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

The sleepy village of Iping doesn’t get many visitors in the middle of winter, so when Mrs. Hall gets a new customer (and one that pays on time!) for her boarding house, it’s not polite to look a gift horse in the mouth.  It’s true the guest is something of an odd duck.  He keeps himself fully clothed and bandaged at all times, and wears dark glasses, performs mysterious chemical experiments in the parlor, and has a nasty temper.  But the stranger (odd, I don’t think he ever gave a name) keeps to himself and, again, pays on time.

The Invisible Man

But as winter melts into spring, the little oddities of the stranger begin to rub people the wrong way.  Plus, there are some mighty weird events in the village.  And the guest appears to be running out of money, so Mrs. Hall is running out of patience with his eccentricity.  After the vicar and his wife are robbed by an unseen criminal, the stranger suddenly has money–could there be a connection?  The Halls decide to have it out with their boarder once and for all–but they could never have guessed his secret!

The power of invisibility and its potential abuses have been the subject of fanciful stories since time immemorial.  This 1897 novel has one of the first truly thought-out considerations of how one might become invisible and the consequences thereof.  Griffin, the Invisible Man, is not so much invisible as transparent, having found a way to alter the refractory properties of human flesh, blood and bone.  He started out as an albino, so didn’t have to worry so much about the pigmentation of skin or hair.  His eyes are partially visible, so that he can see.

Griffin claims that he can treat cloth to make it invisible, but never actually does so, requiring him to run around in the nude for much of the story, a nasty handicap in inclement weather.  While the Invisible Man is certainly a threat on an individual level, his dreams of rulership require him to have visible accomplices.  Unfortunately for Griffin, his choices of lazy tramp Thomas Marvel and old schoolmate Kemp both backfire.

While it’s suggested that either the formula itself or the permanency of his invisible condition have driven Griffin insane, it’s also clear that he was not the most stable of scientists before his transformation.  When his job as a poorly-paid college demonstrator  (TA) prevented him from pursuing his experiments with optics, Griffin had no hesitation in stealing money from his father.  Griffin has no qualms when the old man commits suicide, only annoyed that he must set aside time to go to the funeral.  Griffin is bigoted even by the standards of his time, quick with ethnic, gender-based, and ableist slurs, and is cruel to a cat.

Kemp is quick-witted, and intelligently tries to stop Griffin before the Invisible Man can escalate his reign of terror.  (But it’s too late for the one man Griffin definitely murders as opposed to probably murders.)

There’s quite a bit of incidental humor in the story.  My favorite bit is the visiting American who just happens to be carrying a large firearm and starts shooting randomly in the direction of the Invisible Man, apparently in the belief that sufficient firepower can solve any problem.  (In fairness, he does manage to wing Griffin.)

Those more familiar with the movie versions might find the long early section before the big reveal dragging.  Still, it’s a classic for a reason, and the last section is genuinely suspenseful.

Recommended to science fiction and horror fans who enjoy stories of invisibility.

And here’s Claude Rains as Griffin:

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

At the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, there were no scientists as we understand the term, and no science.  Received wisdom from Aristotle and Galen ruled knowledge and philosophy.  Then a series of changes in technology and the way people investigated nature brought a new way of thinking.  By the end of the Seventeenth Century there were scientists, an intellectual community of people who had created a process we call “science.”

The Invention of Science

This book covers the history of those centuries, and how the Scientific Revolution began.  David Wootton is a professor of Intellectual History at the University of London and an Anniversary Professor at the University of York, and the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries are part of his focus.

There were, according to this book, several contributing factors to the Scientific Revolution.  The printing press allowed ideas to be widely spread and preserved for long times.  Perspective drawing allowed more accurate pictures to be published–you could build something from plans!  The telescope and microscope opened up new worlds to human vision.  Readily available compasses improved navigation.

Plus of course, the “discovery” of America showing there were entire landmasses unknown to the ancient philosophers, and a nova in 1572 that revealed the heavens were not fixed and unchangeable as Aristotle had decreed.  The old answers no longer satisfied, and people began methodically testing to see what actually happened when, for example, you floated ice in water.

It wasn’t an overnight change; several of the pieces took a while before their true significance or usefulness was understood.  At first, much of it was simply mathematicians applying their skills to astronomy or ballistics.  But over time, the changes accelerated, so that by the time of Isaac Newton, what he did with refraction of light was clearly the scientific method.

This is a college level text, with copious footnotes and end notes, bibliography and index.  Professor Wootton spends a great deal of time tracking down earliest uses of various words used for science in a science-related context, like “fact” and “hypothesis.”  This can get tedious, but he’s trying to show how the new way of thinking had to adapt and invent vocabulary for ideas that simply didn’t exist in that form before.  Thankfully, there are also illustrations throughout, and a center section of color plates.

The author also has a section devoted to calling out historians he disagrees with, primarily relativists.  Apparently, there is a school of thought that science is effectively a group delusion, with more socially prominent or connected scientists imposing their views on their colleagues.  Creationism is just as good science as evolution, it would seem.  The author claims that there are such things as theories that don’t stand up to facts.  I am not educated enough to evaluate his conclusions or his description of other historical philosophies; he may have misrepresented them.

Recommended primarily for history students and science buffs.  The casual reader would probably be better off with biographies of the various individual people involved, many of whom led interesting lives that are barely touched on in this volume.  (Women and non-Europeans who helped advance the cause of science are barely mentioned, mostly to say they existed.)



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