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01 March, 2007

The Invisible Man

I started reading ‘The Invisible Man’ by H. G. Wells today and what a pleasure it is to read first-class writing again.

The last book I read was called ‘Shock’ by Robin Cook and it was rubbish. Cook has several books in print but I can’t understand why. The man is almost illiterate. His grammar is awful, even for an American, and he has a habit of making up stupid words even when perfectly good ones already exist. He also has a preference for using words like ‘exited’ and ‘commenced’ instead of ‘left’ and ‘started’. I don’t know if it is pretentiousness or what but it is very jarring on the mental ear. Cook is also one of those stodgy, ponderous writers who likes to tell you a lot of trivial and irrelevant rubbish about someone boarding a plane, or buying a meal, in minute and excruciating detail, while leaving out everything interesting or relevant they might have said. The characters were wooden and silly in the extreme – especially the two heroines who, although both had PhDs, were like stupid and naïve schoolgirls living a ripping yarn from a 1930s novel of an English boarding school.

Publishers Weekly describes 'Shock' as, “a crudely conceived, ineptly written and most damning of all totally unexciting story.” My advice: don’t ever read a book by Robin Cook. Instead, read (or re-read) everything you can find by H. G. Wells.

I read a lot of Wells as a teenager and loved it all (except ‘Tono Bungay’ – I could never get on with that one at all, for some reason I now forget.) Although much of the science in the stories now seems quaint, Wells himself probably wouldn’t have minded. He believed that invoking ‘fantastical’ scientific developments was exactly like invoking magic in his stories – a way to create more extreme and challenging situations in which to examine the nature of people and of society. Despite his wholehearted acknowledgement of the work of Jonathan Swift as inspiration, Wells pretty much invented this kind of science fiction. In Wells, the science is very much beyond the realm of what is possible (then and now). Unlike his near-contemporary Jules Verne, he wasn’t concerned with realistic extrapolation to potential new technologies. The whole point of the technologies Wells invokes is to create a magically altered world for his stories in which he can pose the questions; ‘What would people do if this were possible?’ and ‘How would society react?’

Which is, of course, what all the best science fiction writers have done since.

What makes Wells stand out, though, is not that he did it first, or that he was so imaginative, but that he did it so well. As soon as I began reading ‘The Invisible Man’ I was thrilled by the quality of the writing and also by the sudden memory that this man was a consummate storyteller. Which is probably why they still keep making films of his books (although the films seem to get worse with each iteration! Avoid the Tom Cruise version of ‘War of the Worlds’ like the plague.)

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