Invisibility

Tagged: Theme

The fantasy of being able to make oneself invisible is a common childhood daydream. As with all such daydreams, literary treatments of the theme tend to be cautionary tales; the three-decker novel The Invisible Gentleman (1833) by James Dalton is the most extravagant nineteenth-century example. No good comes of it in such early sf stories as Edward Page Mitchell's "The Crystal Man" (January 1881 The Sun anon), H G Wells's classic The Invisible Man (1897) and Jack London's "The Shadow and the Flash" (June 1903 The Bookman), though C H Hinton was unconcerned with moralizing in "Stella" (in Stella and An Unfinished Communication: Studies of the Unseen, coll 1895).

Almost as common as stories of being invisible are stories of confrontation with invisible adversaries, in which feelings of fear and insecurity with no immediate and obvious cause are dramatically symbolized (> Paranoia). Many stories in this vein inhabit the borderland between supernatural fantasy and sf; notable examples include Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was It?" (March 1859 Harper's), Guy de Maupassant's "Le Horla" ["The Horla"] (October 1886 Gil Blas; exp rev in Le Horla, coll 1887), Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" (7 December 1893 Tales from New York Town Topics), George Allan England's "The Thing from – 'Outside'" (April 1923 Science and Invention), Victor Rousseau's The Sea Demons (1-22 January 1916 All-Story Weekly as V Rousseau; 1924) as by H M Egbert, Edmond Hamilton's "The Monster-God of Mamurth" (August 1926 Weird Tales), H P Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" (April 1929 Weird Tales), Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier (March 1939 Unknown; 1943; rev 1948) and Murray Leinster's War with the Gizmos (1958). On a cheerier note, Thorne Smith made comic use of total and partial invisibility in several of his humorous fantasies, though only Skin and Bones (1933) offers a quasi-sf rationale.

In later sf, invisibility – sometimes more metaphorical than literal – is often deployed symbolically. In Damon Knight's "The Country of the Kind" (February 1956 F&SF) and Robert Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man" (April 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow) criminals are "exiled" from society in that people simply refuse to see them, so that they suffer agonies of loneliness. This notion was anticipated by Jorge Luis Borges as a throwaway line in "The Lottery in Babylon" (January 1941 Sur); it is inverted in Gardner Dozois's "The Visible Man" (December 1975 Analog), in which other people become invisible to the outcast. G K Chesterton's non-sf "The Invisible Man" (February 1911 Cassell's Magazine) centres on the psychological invisibility of a murderer who is not literally invisible but merely unnoticeable. In the "Ulan Dhor" episode of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950), the City of Ampridatvir is divided into wearers of green and grey clothing, each faction unable or unwilling to perceive the other; similarly in China Miéville's The City & the City (2009), police-procedural investigation in the title's coterminous cities is complicated by the learned or conditioned inability of each city's inhabitants to see those of the other. The idea of unnoticed communities existing in the interstices of everyday society (> Pariah Elite) is developed by Fritz Leiber in The Sinful Ones (July 1950 Fantastic Adventures as "You're All Alone"; exp 1953; rev 1980), John Sladek in Love Among the Xoids (1984 chap) and Christopher Priest in The Glamour (1984). Stories in which people fade from original inconsequentiality into literal or metaphorical invisibility include Charles Beaumont's "The Vanishing American" (August 1955 F&SF), Harlan Ellison's "Are You Listening?" (December 1958 Amazing; vt "The Forces That Crush" in Ellison Wonderland, coll 1962), Sylvia Edwards's "The End of Evan Essant . . . ?" (April 1962 F&SF) and Harding's Displaced Person (1979; vt Misplaced Persons).

Some stories extend psychological invisibility into an outright sf/fantasy device. The crime-fighting character The Shadow has the ability to "cloud men's minds", perhaps through Hypnosis, and pass unnoticed. The Aliens of Eric Frank Russell's "Mesmerica" (in Men, Martians and Machines, coll of linked stories 1955) use their hypnotic Psi Power to appear in deceitful forms or disappear altogether. Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians (August-November 1966 Analog; 1967) describes the Tarnhelm Effect, an induced compulsion not to look at any thus-protected object; in other works such as Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites (1967) and Larry Niven's A Gift from Earth (1968), the same effect is achieved through Psi Powers; Douglas Adams's Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) gives this concept the thinnest of sf veneers as the "Someone Else's Problem field" that allows an entire Spaceship to pass unnoticed at the edge of perception. The protagonist of Piers Anthony's Mute (1981) is retroactively invisible, fading from others' memories since his talent is to cause selective Amnesia.

Military exploitation of this trope covers a spectrum from true invisibility to advanced stealth Technology, an intervening example being the routing of light around a partially invisible manned bomb-carrier in "For Love" (June 1962 Galaxy; vt "All for Love" in Blood and Burning, coll 1978) by Algis Budrys. E E Smith's Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951) features an "inherently indetectable" Spaceship with nonferrous construction and a nonreflective surface, the latter principle being interestingly inverted in Neal Stephenson's Anathem (2008), where a spacesuited assault team approaches its target under cover of a refrigerated "Cold Black Mirror" (masking thermal emission and angled to reflect an anonymous patch of star-dotted black space). In A E van Vogt's Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946; rev 1951), annihilating Rays are used to destroy all outgoing photons reflected from a stealth ship's hull. Conversely, elite troops in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) confuse the eye with perfectly reflective "catoptric armour". Invisibility screens are an sf commonplace: perhaps the most famous of these is the Cloaking Device introduced in the original series of Star Trek. John M Ford's witty Paranoia (1984) game scenario The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues (1985) features an invisible, sentient stealth tank designated HARV[E], whose commanding Computer is ELWOOD.

In Superhero comics, characters like Superman and The Flash can achieve effective invisibility through "super-speed", moving too rapidly to register on normal human Perception. For other examples of this form of pseudo-invisibility, see Time Distortion. An ingenious variation based on genuine quirks of neurology is found in Blindsight (2006) by Peter Watts, whose rapidly computing Aliens can read the state of the human nervous system in real time, and so avoid movement at moments when this would update the image constructed by our flawed optical processes. They conceal themselves in the blind spots of Perception.

Invisibility is a staple of cinematic special effects, displayed to good effect in the classic The Invisible Man (1933) – based on Wells's novel and borrowing some inspiration from Philip Wylie's The Murderer Invisible (1931) – but not so well in its inferior sequels, and with varying success in three television series, all likewise called The Invisible Man, featuring invisible crime-fighters and secret agents. The humanoid Alien in Phantom from Space (1953) is supposedly invisible because his metabolism is based on silicon rather than carbon (and glass is made of silicon, which suffices for the logic of film). A pseudo-technological essay at achieving invisibility is depicted in The Philadelphia Experiment (1984). Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man (2000) revisits and even darkens the Wellsian vision of invisibility as a megalomania-inducing curse. Superhero teams often include an invisible member, contrasting with more spectacular powers, as in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), The Incredibles (2004) and Fantastic Four (2005) – whose Invisible Girl was in the original Comic.

More extensive and elaborate accounts of the existential politics of individual invisibility can be found in H F Saint's Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1987), filmed as Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), and Thomas Berger's Being Invisible (1988). A theme anthology is Invisible Men (anth 1960) edited by Basil Davenport. [BS/DRL]

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