Sunday, September 16, 2012

Running around naked

Back in March there was a news story from a technology conference in Austin, TX, about a company hiring homeless men to be wireless 4G hotspots. I guess the access was free but the company encouraged people to give a $2 donation to the homeless person. Of course, there was a lot of public outrage and the company was accused of exploitation. But in one of the news stories I heard they asked one of the homeless men what he thought about it, and his answer was interesting. He said something about how people didn't ignore him anymore or look away when they walked by. Instead people smiled and said hello, and many of them stopped and talked to him. He said he didn't feel "invisible" anymore.

In 1897 H. G. Wells published a short novel titled The Invisible Man. It tells the story of a stranger who arrives during a snowstorm at a small country inn in the English village of Iping in West Sussex. He is, of course, all bundled up with a coat, hat, and gloves, but his face is also fully bandaged and he wears dark goggles. He keeps to himself and stays in his room working with chemicals and laboratory equipment, only going out at night. But such a mysterious stranger in a small town naturally stirs up curiosity which leads to an incident where the man – who the reader obviously knows is invisible – is forced to flee unseen by taking off all his clothes.

He later tells his story to an old acquaintance from medical school. His name is Griffin and he is/was an albino, but he discovered a way to "lower the refractive index" of his body to the same as air so that he reflects no light, making himself invisible. He anticipated great advantages but not the troubles that would come with not being able to be seen.

Although I alluded to a social situation as an introduction, I'm stretching the comparison for this old “classic” science-fiction story – I just thought it was a nice intro (yes, I know there's another book with the same title that would have fit perfectly, but I didn't read that one). During the late Victorian (Romantic) period, the optimism of science was seen as also having a dark and dangerous side. Griffin imagines his work will "transcend magic" giving him power and freedom. His first impulse is "to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people's hats astray," and yet he quickly realizes the true problems he faces. He has no money and no shelter (he had caused a fire that destroyed the room he rented), and wearing clothes (if he had any) would forfeit all advantages – yet it was January in London! He can't even eat because the undigested food remains visible and he can’t carry anything. The snow was settling on him and dirt and mud gathered on his feet making them visible. He can't speak to people, dogs could somehow sense him, and his attempts to steal clothing nearly get him caught – which would only make him a sideshow attraction.

I've seen comments by other reviewers alleging that Wells was channeling his socialist philosophies and that the story is a commentary on how capitalism had made the lower classes invisible, but I disagree. Griffin is never a very sympathetic character and although I tried to empathize with him and his unfortunate predicament, his unfriendliness and poorly contained anger make him a frightening protagonist. And there's plenty of evidence to question his sanity, although it's not clear if his madness is due to his experiment or just who he is. It seems more like a simple cautionary tale warning that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Although we can accomplish wonders in the name of science, we're still vulnerable to the dangerous human side of our selves.

And yet it's an interesting book to read. Who hasn't at some point or other wished they could be invisible? Just consider the downsides first – like having to run around naked in the winter!

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