Fiction Reviews

The Invisible Man

(1897 / 2013) H. G. Wells, Gollancz, £9.99, hrdbk, ix + 145pp, ISBN 978-0-575-11537-8

(1897 / 2013) H. G. Wells, Flame Tree Press, £6.99, pbk, 200pp, ISBN 978-1-907-56288-4

(1897 / 2022) H. G. Wells, Macmillan Collector's Library, £10.99, hrdbk, 176pp, ISBN 978-1-529-06905-1


This 1897 classic from arguably Britain's first SF grandmaster has been reprinted by Gollancz as part of its SF Masterwork series.

Subtitled 'A Grotesque Romance'. A common concept (since Frankenstein if not before) is that of the scientist over-stepping the mark in the quest for discovery and/or power.  But in SF, the discovery itself can often have consequences for the discoverer...  In The Invisible Man a brash, cantankerous, heavily bandaged visitor turns up in a small rural village and stays at the inn.  There, for the most part, he keeps himself to himself, secluded in his room working on who-knows-what with papers and vials he has in his baggage.  But then mysterious, seemingly mischievous goings-on start to happen in the village and the gossip starts…

It is hardly a spoiler, given the novel's title, that the protagonist turns out to be invisible.  He is a scientist who discovers the means of making himself perfectly transparent, but having the power to go wherever he wishes undetected, in the process becomes a megalomaniac.  Under the threat of him as an invisible terror, the population unites and attempts to capture the man...

In 1933 Universal released the first film version of the novel (trailer here).  Directed by James Whale, and with Claude Rains making his debut star appearance, it was the closest to the novel out of a number of subsequent remakes and quasi-sequels (such as The Invisible Man Returns (1940) (trailer here) and Invisible Agent (1942).  Yet Whale’s cinematic offering was nonetheless disliked by Wells himself.  More recently the film The Hollow Man (2000) (trailer here) is a modern return closer to Wells’ original vision.  Though the novel was published decades before either first Hugo Awards or the Locus annual readers poll, The Invisible Man remains one of Wells' most famous and respected works.

As said, the novel's title is its own spoiler for the story's central conceit: that someone can become invisible to others.  Today such a concept may not seem that remarkable, indeed in SF terms it is almost mundane such are the numerous exemplars from the alien camouflage in the film Predator (1987) to the cloaked Klingon spacecraft in Star Trek (1966).  And, of course, invisibility abounds in fantasy, cf. The Lord of the Rings. There is little doubt that back in 1897 there was a greater freshness to such tropes but even so this novel has resonated over many subsequent decades.

Such has been this novel's impact that it has spawned a number of film and TV spin-offs. A derivative TV series, The Invisible Man, was made by ATV in 1958 (the star was nameless being invisible) and another by Universal in 1975 (trailer here) starred David McCallum (which later was re-titled as the Gemini Man (1976) starring Ben Murphey).  Conversely, an alternative spin on Wells' idea—whereby society in the form of the US secret service sought to exploit an innocent (a stock market analyst) who became invisible as a result of a laboratory accident—was used by H. F. Saint in a novel (1987) which became the light weight, but entertaining, film Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992) (trailer here) starring Chevy Chase, Daryl (Blade Runner) Hannah and Sam (Jurassic Park) Neill. dir. John (The Thing, Dark Star) Carpenter.  That film has the conceit of the 'Invisible Man's' need to eat transparent or colourless food as it took a while for ingested material to become invisible: this is something mentioned in Wells' novel.

If you are in doubt as to H. G. Wells appeal to modern readers, then the current rash of Wells' reprints 2016/7, around the time of the 70th anniversary of his death and 150th anniversary of his birth testifies to the man's works' longevity.  Indeed, Wells was the ninth most cited author in the SF² Concatenation poll conducted at the 1987 Eastercon (whose results were published in our 1988 print edition).

The 2013 Gollancz edition comes with a thoughtful four-page introduction by Adam Roberts that traces the novel's central conceit – what would one do if one did have the ability to be invisible – back to Plato in 380BC).  This particular edition is also one of the SF Masterwork's hardback editions with a full colour cover integral to the book's boards (as opposed to being a separate wrap-around dust jacket).  So for my money this is the edition to get.

Meanwhile, the 2022 Macmillan Collector's Library edition comes in a clothbound, pocket-sized format with gold foiled edges and ribbon markers. What's not to like?

Jonathan Cowie

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