Published in 1897, The Invisible Man is one of Wells’ earliest works. And along with others produced in that first prolific period, it was destined to become a classic, not just of science fiction (a genre yet to take shape), but of literature in general. Although not the first to do so, Wells certainly gave us definitive versions of time travel (using a machine), alien invasion, space travel, aerial warfare, genetic manipulation, and future history.
In these earlier scientific romances, Wells uses a technique that makes his tales credible and, as a consequence, more effective. They are told simply, are set in the everyday world, and concern everyday people. Granted his central characters are often eccentric men of learning, but Wells is interested on the effects these individuals have on their fellows and on society as a whole. That society is not always human society or in the here and now, but Wells always has an eye for moral and social questions and the effects of the misuse of science.
First and foremost, however, Wells is a great story teller. He draws wonderfully realistic (if often affectionately comic) characters and has a keen eye for place. The Invisible Man takes place, in part, in a rural Sussex that I recognise from my youth (no, I’m not that old, but some parts of Sussex have changed little in the last century – although I have no doubt there is already planning permission in place to concrete them over, build multi-million pound flyovers to save commuters a few extra seconds travelling time, and stick up hideous housing developments in places where flood water will constitute their only regular supply). And those locations I do not know are deftly described to provide a strong visual setting.
Wells is also of a period in which writing was recognised as a tool, a means to end, not the end itself. He writes clearly and skilfully, knowing the story and its subtly conveyed underlying messages are more important than any display of technical skill or linguistic pyrotechnics.
Don’t be put off by the fact this is a book that is going to be found in the ‘classics’ or the ‘science fiction’ section of a bookshop. It is a work of strong social observation, a work that explores the consequences of greed and obsession, a work that exposes our reactions to things we do not understand. It is also a great story. Read. Enjoy.