“I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got. Ambition—what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?”
Would you rather be invisible or fly? According to pop psychologists, the answer tells us something interesting about what we seek in life. Flight is noble, something to aspire to: invisibility is more primal, allowing us to avoid threat and remain mysterious. For myself, I’m not sure what I’d do with flight – sure, it would be cool to fly around town, but it seems insufficient to actually fight crime, for example. Invisibility seems much more practical, but also has some downsides, particularly if its permanent.
Neither answer is wrong, of course. For Wells, though, invisibility is not just a superpower, but also a burden. In The Invisible Man, Griffin, the title character, has rendered himself invisible through science, but is unable to turn it off. Reluctant to reveal his secret, he is forced to flee his fellow man.
At the beginning, Griffin is, if something of a jerk, also somewhat sympathetic: naked in winter and desperate to undo his curse, he travels to a small town with his equipment, where he tries to blend in as a burn victim with a fake nose. He rapidly uses up any forbearance the reader might have, however, culminating in his (somewhat stupid and flawed) plan to begin a reign of terror, killing anyone who stands up to him and dominating the region. Isolated from his fellow man, he grows cold and contemptuous towards them, no longer a part of society but an observer of it.
What he would do when he had a cold or someone bought a dog isn’t clear, but then it appears he wasn’t a man given to thinking ahead.
Invisible Man came out in serial form in 1897, part of a burgeoning body of popular science fiction that drew on seemingly miraculous technology such as electricity and the telegraph to dream about what the future would be like, from Jules Verne to H.G. Wells himself. Wells’ War of the Worlds is perhaps the best known of these, though all of them continue to influence modern science fiction, if not the same broad readership as they once did. Today, sci-fi is likely to examine themes of environmental decay, the internet, and biotechnology: then, authors were fascinated about the seemingly limitless possibilities of technology, and the dangers thereof. The technologies have changed, but in many ways the concerns have not.