Review by Joseph T Major of

THE INVISIBLE MAN: A Grotesque Romance

A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices by H. G. Wells

(McFarland & Company, 1998; ISBN 0-7864-0410-8; $50) and


A Critical Text of the 1901 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices by H. G. Wells

(McFarland & Company, 1998; ISBN 0-7864-0411-6; $55)

Edited by Leon Stover

An example of how the Soviet state security apparatus sought to influence opinion abroad is the campaign of Willi Münzenberg, the founder of the "innocents' clubs" that recruited so many progressives. One of his policies could be called "matchmaking" by the generous-minded and "procuring" by the more cynical. And one of those "sparrows" of Willi's who helped sweep high-profile intellectuals into the funnel from which there ultimately emerged those hard-core fellow travellers who put on their coats whenever Great Stalin felt cold was Moira Budberg. And her chosen lover (it was not very hard, given his record) was none other than the writer who had described an ideal socialist society in the one book, and set forth a radical method of achieving it in the other - Herbert George Wells.

Professor Stover has provided in this edition a crucial guide to these classics of science fiction, explaining not only those obscurities which lie across the gulf of years, but those subsurface influences that serve to shape the text, the intent. Which was, to such a great degree, the idea that instead of dead, decadent democracy, the future state would be and should be run by a list of the finest scientific minds, selected on the basis of real ability and achievement.

Stover rightly emphasizes the crucial influence of Henri de Saint-Simon on Wells. Saint-Simon invented the term "industrialism" (industrialisme), and a French follower of his invented "socialism" (socialisme) as a refinement of the former term. The developed economy would of necessity have to be organized by the society.

Or more precisely, by the selected elite, the superior intellects (savants) providing direction to the more practical intellects (managers) who in turn would direct the ordinary folk (proletarians). Stover cites parallels in Plato and in the Soviet system. Indeed, Wells himself had urged both Lenin and Stalin to cast off the Marxist ideological framework and declare the Soviet state to be organized on Saint-Simonian principles.

One can understand how English socialists would be fond of an order of society in which people like them rule. The practice of this Saint-Simonian society has been explicated by Soviet refugee Mikhail Voslensky in his Nomenklatura. The nomenklatura is Orwell's Inner Party from 1984, Hazlitt's Protectors from Time Will Run Back; the ruling class of the classless state. Far from being the pure intellects of the Selenites, the selfless Samurai of A Modern Utopia, the nomenklatura had demonstrated that the purpose of power is the enjoyment thereof, enjoying a standard of living far above that of the ordinary Soviet worker. (One of Voslensky's points is a thorough anticipatory debunking of the tired anti-anti-Communist argument about "good Lenin, bad Stalin", by showing how the habits and privileges of the nomenklatura can be traced back directly to Lenin himself.)

Wells has been unfortunate (particularly from his point of view) in that these books have been transformed into movies that lack many of his brilliant concepts and also his political ideas. And it is from the movies that he becomes more widely known. Indeed, Stover cites Things to Come and The Man Who Could Work Miracles as examples, but in those cases Wells himself was involved in the production. (Compare and contrast the fidelity to the source, in both plot and ideas, of Destination Moon with Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers for another example of the difference auctorial participation makes.) The film The Invisible Man is notorious for the scene where Claude Rains plucks off his pasteboard nose, revealing nothing at all, not for the Nechayevan strife the Invisible Man seeks to foment. And likewise the film of The First Men in the Moon attempted only the first half of the book, the lunar adventure of Bedford and Cavor (adding a woman, a strange omission for the womanizing Wells), not the lunar explication of this genetic nomenklatura where the lower orders could not even conceive of ever stepping out of line. (And capped it off with a resolution stolen from The War of the Worlds.)

The Invisible Man divides into sections of comedy and of horror. One of the useful reminders Stover provides is the pointing out the variations in use of dialect (also translating said dialect into standard English). In the sleepy village of Little-Storting-on-the-Swuff er, Iping, the inhabitants are utterly provincial, backward, unimaginative, and foolish. In the States we'd call them rubes. Wells uses several subtle but indicative hints to demonstrate that these are the natural underlings, over whom the superior intellects, the Cabals, Griffins, and, yes, Wellses themselves, deserve to rule for their own good. (Which "their" will get the good is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Griffin, the Invisible Man of the title, flings himself thence in pursuit of his goal. Which is to recreate his researches he did not keep very good notes, it seems. But his situation is manifestly unstable, and soon enough he is revealed (which sounds odd, since there is of course nothing to see) and forced to flee.

Thus ends the comedy of the Invisible Man; the horror tale of the Invisible Man begins. As with every thriller, there has to be a scene where the villain explains himself that is, if you follow the theory that Griffin is the villain of the book, which is if nothing else seemingly the exact opposite of what Wells meant. Stover points out that Griffin's chosen confessor, Kemp, is just as provincial and stultified as the people of Iping, only on a higher scale (i.e., he wants to become a Fellow of the Royal Society for the status it will bring, not because it marks a significant contribution to human knowledge, which in any case seems beyond his reach. Didn't Wells, in his later years, wish to become an F.R.S.?)

Griffin's explanation describes further his overarching revolutionary goal for which all means are desirable; how he began with cruelty to animals, went on to arson, theft, assault, and contemplation of murder. In a case of unwitting explication, Griffin is given a psychology straight out of a VICAP profile for a serial killer. (I have heard of a "Sherlock Holmes's Adventure of the Invisible Man" pastiche by Manley Wade Wellman which may be of interest in this context.) It is noteworthy that Kemp is stigmatized for not praising this revolutionary program. This was why Stover conveniently provided, in an appendix, select quotations from Nechayev, so that the reader might understand Griffin and his motives and methods all the better.

And indeed the original ending, with the martyrdom of the Invisible Man at the hands of the ignorant mob, represents the triumph of the fixed order over the wonders of innovation. Thus, Stover finds it desirable and necessary that the established text be not the first London Edition, as is the case in the other books of this series, but the first New York Edition, to which the epilogue had been added. This contains the summarizing sentence "So ends the story of the strange and evil experiment of the Invisible Man." It also contains a sign of hope (in the particular discourse of the book), in the preservation of Griffin's notes by his sometime henchman, Thomas Marvel. Marvel has no comprehension of the notes, but he does understand that they are something of value; he is in the gutter with all the folk of Iping, but he at least can look at the stars.

Griffin, Wells makes clear, is a superman, a revolutionary not to be fettered by the rules of lesser beings, a great man destined to change the course of human affairs. Perhaps so. But most of us humble proletarians, unable to see permanent invisibility as anything but an inconvenient if not dreadful handicap, can have doubts about the end justifying these means.

One of the values of science fiction is its ability to field-test a society, so to speak. This is why 1984 and Time Will Run Back can be classified as SF; Orwell presenting his fear of the obliterating power of the totalitarian state, and Hazlitt presenting his hopes for the renewing power of the great idea of freedom. But it need not be just humans. By presenting an idea through an image, a presentation of an alien race exemplifying another means of organizing society, it is possible to evade the intellectual censors, the strictures of the brain more so than the actual blue-pencilers of the external world, and so open the mind to new possibilities. Rod Serling found this valuable. Unfortunately, because the world of this imagined tale is a fiction, a created thing, it is possible also to ignore, forget, or pass over inconvenient considerations.

For The First Men In the Moon Wells uses again the trope of the unreliable, if not unworthy, narrator. Mr. Bedford, the slick financier who slipped, is deaf and blind to the transcendent powers of science, as he demonstrates time and again. (Wells is knocking on a familiar teapot; the speculator has been denounced as a parasite by revolutionaries from Donnelly to LaRouche. And HGW had a certain group in common with them to be disliked, too.) Nevertheless, had it not been for his problem with creditors, he would not have been in a position to meet that abstration of thought, the scientist Cavor. (A name derived from the Latin for "hollow place" and evocative of the Italian unifier, Count Camillo Bensi di Cavour.)

The counterpointing of the dedicated, knowledge-focused Cavor and the scheming, ignorant Bedford makes up the first half of the story. Even here, though, Wells seems to make his "unreliable narrator" inconsistent he plans a vast Cavorite Company which shall rule the world, in echo of Bellamy's explication of how the great trusts conglomerated even further until they merged with the government to bring about the Equality of the Nationalist ideal.

Stover points out how Wells was willing to slide by on scientific points to make his principal philosophical one (cf. Verne's plaint that "He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation," which Stover quotes on page 282). Some of the more useful notes, from the hard SF point of view, deal with such matters as how the sheet of Cavorite which Cavor poured flat would not really whip the atmosphere off of Earth, as Cavor feared (Note 46, p. 65). The attention to genuine scientific detail as a reinforcement of the background and the extrapolation, as well as the way in which Wells chose to diverge from the established scientific facts for his story, are early examples of the methodology of science fiction. By stretching the truth for an illumination, the writer hopes to stretch the readers' minds.

As on Earth, so in the Moon. The landing on the Moon and the initial encounters with the inhabitants therein turn out to be as illuminating of the differing personalities of Bedford and Cavor as the similar adventures in The Moon Maid were for the modesty and nobility of Julian 5th and the envy and viciousness of Orthis. It is perhaps a sly dig at moneymaking that has the Selenites use gold as their principal building and toolmaking substance. (Surely it can't be on the grounds of tensile strength or lightness.)

And in his relations with Cavor and the Selenites, and his self-centered actions during their escape, Bedford reverts to type. (I do think that more might have been made of that final bloodstained note of Cavor's.) Even his return to Earth, and the maneuverings that followed upon it, present the narrowness and stultifiedness of his personality and of the world he lives in. In a proper state, no one would be allowed to turn up out of nowhere with a large quantity of gold, and go free unquestioned, Wells says by inversion.

The next section must have been a surprise for the readers of The Strand, almost as much as the publication of that memoir of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, for it seemed that with his moon gold (shades of Chester Gould!) in hand and the inventor forever vanished, the story was at an end. But no, as Stover would have it, the whole point of the book was about to begin.

Transmitting from the Moon, Cavor begins explaining to whoever might be listening his side of the story. Quickly passing the Rashomon style description of Cavor's side of the story in the first part, he gets very quickly down to the problem of being E.T. (well, E.S. as in "E.S. the Extra Selenite") phoning home, and having to have someone learn his language. (The fact that Cavor's learning the Selenite language is never mentioned points to a typical procedure of conquerors: if you don't teach them your language you can then speak freely about your plans to dispose of them . . .)

Once the scholars learn English, they proceed to explain things to Cavor in proper Utopian fashion. This is a utopia where everyone knows his place and indeed can't imagine getting out of it. Moreover, the various Selenites are configured from birth (only a step farther to Brave New World) to be physically and mentally fitted to their destined task. And above all these mere physical types are the great, hypertrophied brains of the Selenite nomenklatura; and above even them, in power and in knowledge, is the Great Stalin Grand Lunar.

This was the type-case of the alien, the creature that thinks as well as a human, but not like a human. But regarding the Selenites as merely pulp fiction BEMs only scratches the surface. As Stover argues, the Saint-Simonian scientific Selenite order is contrasted favorably with the crawling capitalist-traditionalist pre-scientific Earthling chaos. A publicity document for the future scientific world order, where the Wise and the Good would rule, so to speak.

Therefore, the entire story of Cavor has a subtext unknown to him, that the Selenites are willing to let him communicate with his home world in order to demonstrate to us that we cannot possibly be on their level. Why bother dominating by force when dominating by reason is better? Consider: "You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficient yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy. But before resorting to arms, we shall try the power of words." [Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 1].

Stover, by presenting the intellectual underpinnings of Wells's work, has provided a powerful took for understanding his writings; one sees them more deeply, without losing that earlier sense-of-wonder that originally opened the vistas of the young reader's mind.