It is a terrible paradox that the pursuit dedicated to improving the human condition bears the greatest potential to destroy humanity. That pursuit is scientific pursuit—ever progressing, ever evolving. Scientific evolution, however, should be simultaneous with engendering the responsibilities scientific knowledge requires. Unfortunately, technology develops far more quickly than temperance; likewise hubris ahead of humility. Man marches along with the uninhibited advance of his capacities without the innate impulses to govern their use. What hangs in the balance is man. Unchecked growth devoid of an attendant moral sense cannot truly help man. It can only harm him. “Because we can” must never be the answer to “Why?”—(a fearful question in this age of genetic creation and nuclear destruction). It behooves man to think through the ramifications of his powers lest he become Midas, whose apparent blessings became appalling banes.
The Invisible Man by Herbert George Wells delivers a singular enactment of this peril, making it a fable very much for modern times though written in 1897. The novella is a cunning mixture of science fiction, horror, humor, and cautionary tale about the consequences when scientism is employed as a means for illicit immunity. Without doubt, scientific inquiry can provide relief from trials by enhancing power, and as such provides a type of escape. Certain escapes, however, are not to be assayed.
The Invisible Man centers on an ambitious, contemptuous student of optics named Griffin, who discovers the means to render objects invisible by radioactively reducing their refractive index to that of air. In a desperate moment, and a desire to assume advantage over his fellow man, Griffin impulsively subjects himself to the process and becomes invisible, “teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things (he) now had impunity to do.” Griffin uses applied science “to transcend magic;” to vanish from common existence and assume a new one free of troubles and weaknesses. He flies from what he views as social and commercial oppression with designs to assume unlimited command over wealth and convention.
What the Invisible Man failed to consider is whether it is actually advantageous for a man to be invisible. Griffin never anticipated the difficulties he would incur through his invisibility. As it turned out, being stark naked at all times was uncomfortable. The process of waiting for food to assimilate was inconvenient. People and vehicles unaware of his presence proved hazardous. In fact, Griffin discovers that there was really very little he could do without betraying himself. His invisibility—his desire to disappear and dominate—was actually a cause of detectability and vulnerability.
Once Griffin realizes that he is a helpless absurdity, a mere caricature of a man, it is too late. He desperately labors to discover how to reverse the process, with plans to secure riches invisibly before becoming visible again to enjoy them. His research unfolds alongside the futile defense of his secret. For an invisible man, Griffin attracts a great deal of attention. The only clothes he is able to procure are from a theater. His head is concealed in bandages with a wig, goggles, and a false nose to allow for air. Griffin’s only recourse for being inconspicuous is the most conspicuous thing in the world. He cannot hide his freakishness try as he might—he is a prisoner of his error.
By removing himself practically and psychologically from the human throng, Griffin grasps at what he assumed would be freedom, but is nothing more than mere license. He immediately perpetrates mindless acts of both mischief and mayhem in the absence of public restriction. This results, however, in the rapid deterioration of any moral sense as the Invisible Man runs the gambit from stealing to slaughter—and it drives him mad. Such license triggers insanity because it is imbalanced and prohibitive to true happiness. Man is created to be free. Man, as a political animal however, must participate in civilization to remain true to his nature—wherein lies his freedom. Freedom, contrary to general conceptions, is not the capability to do whatever is desired; it is to do whatever is decent. In other words, man is free when he acts well in the sight of other men. To be invisible is to be isolated, which is inhuman and ultimately restrictive.
As Griffin descends into the madness born of his unnatural attempt for an unnatural independence, he determines that all invisibility is really good for is killing and establishing a reign of terror. Thus the history of the Invisible Man quickly unravels to rage, riot, and rampage—the horrifying culmination of rash action without due regard for long-term effects. Those willing to do wonton violence to their own natures for the sake of a perceived good will, given time, do violence to others.
To make a rather medieval distinction, science that does not involve true knowledge cannot be called true science. Neither is the man who experiments with applied sciences a true scientist, as such—he is often a mad scientist, however. The insanity of isolation produced by strange scientific quests was a common theme with Mr. Wells. The Time Machine ends with the Traveller lost and alone in time-space. The Island of Dr. Moreau features surgically created beast-men, grotesquely set apart from humanity. The Invisible Man explores the detachment and solitude that is wrought when man uses his powers to alter the natural course of things.
Such loneliness is stuff as nightmares are made on, imparting the dread of being an anomaly. Recognition of this danger is an apt education for this day and age beset with the nightmarish isolation caused by “social” media, prescription drug addiction, and sex change. Our society is one that looks to scientific development for personal dispensation, often only to suffer personal disaster. Mr. Wells’ The Invisible Man bears a warning to be heeded far more now than ever in his time.