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Another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. This one first appeared in Vector 192, March-April 1997.

Thus speaking, the minister squared his narrow shoulders and walked over to the coffin. Interested, Mr Brown followed him. Charlie contented himself with waiting in the background. As the Rev. Watts peered down at the skeleton of Mr Bland, partially concealed behind his formidable beard, one fleshless hand shot up and seized the minister by the lapel of his coat. With a sharp intake of breath the Rev. Watts leaped back and collapsed into a chair.
“Be calm,” said the skeleton, sitting up in the coffin. “Pull yourself together. Mr Brown, give the parson a drink.”
Scarcely realizing what he was doing, the Rev. Watts accepted a stiff shot of applejack, which he poured into his shaken and still quivering body.
“Have another?” asked Mr Brown.
“Pour it out,” gasped the Rev. Watts, wiping the tears from his eyes. “I’ll take it when I stop burning. What is it, embalming fluid?”
Skin and Bones (1933)
Thorne Smith

She became invisible.
Richard continued to stare at the place she had been, so she moved away, unseen by him, and walked to the other side of the bed.
It was invariably like this when the glamour was consented to. It was like stripping in front of strangers, like those dreams of nakedness in public places, like sexual fantasies of total vulnerability and helplessness. Yet invisibility was secure, a concealment and a hiding, a power and a curse. The half-guilty surge of sexual arousal, the sweet desire of unprotected surrender, the sacrifice of privacy, the exposure of hidden desire, the realization that it had started and could not be stopped.
The Glamour (1984, revised version 1996)
Christopher Priest

When Sue reveals her invisibility to Richard Grey in The Glamour, she sums up everything that invisibility is used to mean in science fiction. Though it feels like the ultimate in hiding, it is in reality an exposure. Every character in science fiction who has been invisible has changed into someone other than their normal self, into a Mr Hyde. Thus Sue, when visible, is quiet, shy, retiring, a mousy creature whose very mousiness is what attracts Richard to her. When invisible, however, she is freed from the constraints of civilization, hidden desires are exposed and she becomes sexually voracious, a change in character that contributes to their eventual break-up.

But more is lost than gained by this absence of corporeality. Every science fiction writer who has taken up invisibility as a theme has come up against the same philosophical conclusion: that our identity and our substance are somehow conjoined, that only by being corporeal can we also be real. Time and again, no matter how the characters may relish the power of their invisibility, they eventually discover its curse. If stories of invisibility are not always tragedies, they always end up as tales of loss.

When H.G. Wells introduced The Invisible Man in 1897 it might have been supposed that this variation on a theme of Jekyll and Hyde would be as fertile as any of his other works from this period in the development of science fiction. It did indeed inspire a lot of films and television programmes, more, one suspects, for the special effects opportunities offered by the invisible central character than for anything else. But while the underlying theme of scientific hubris, the scientist who becomes his own experimental subject, has continued to be a popular topic, invisibility as such has proved to be far less popular. While individual writers have repeatedly turned to certain set topics, from drugs to identity, and themes, from alien invasion to space exploration, few if any have used invisibility more than once.

The invisible hero is visibly alienated from his society, the two sides of his character are revealed, and in the end he cannot persist in the forced isolation. Thus Wells’s hero faces an inevitable descent through crime to death, and few other writers have found enough variety in the subject to avoid straightforward recapitulation of Wells’s original.

It has, at various times, proved an apt subject for comedy, notably in Thorne Smith’s Skin and Bones in which an innocuous experimenter, appropriately named Bland, finds one of his experiments going wrong and he periodically becomes invisible except for his skeleton. The novel has great fun with the inconvenient transformations: a barber who has shaved him unwraps the towel from around Bland’s face to find a skull grinning up at him, a prostitute wakes beside her latest client to find a skeleton in her bed. Even so, the book follows the typical pattern of stories of invisibility: the change awakens a hidden strand in Bland’s character which, being a Thorne Smith novel, involves copious amounts of sex and alcohol. In the scene quoted, for example, where Bland, in skeletal form, has been assumed to be dead, the transformation provides an excuse for corpse, undertaker and priest to get drunk. Nevertheless, although release from social constraint (invisibility) allows the escape from one’s inhibitions – which is always to be encouraged in the novels of Thorne Smith – invisibility itself is an inevitable obstacle to the enjoyment of this new, uninhibited state and so there is the inevitable downfall.

Only when writers noticed that separating the individual from his society in this way also presented an opportunity for social satire did invisibility again start to occur in serious science fiction. Both Robert Silverberg (“To See the Invisible Man” [1962]) and Gardner Dozois (“The Visible Man” [1975]) use invisibility in different ways as a form of punishment. Silverberg’s criminal is treated as if he does not exist, a state which he at first exploits voyeuristically but which is quickly shown to be one of increasing vulnerability; Dozois’s criminal can be seen but cannot see the people around him, an enforced alienation that is highly destructive. During the ’60s and ’70s in particular, alienation was a common theme in science fiction – which makes it surprising that the alienation of invisibility was not more commonly used – but society was always the Grail, so that being shut away from one’s society by one form of invisibility or another was the ultimate evil.

But it was Christopher Priest who explored that form of alienation most thoroughly, in his chilling novel The Glamour. There is nothing magical about the invisibility in this novel; it is not the product of rays or potions but is in fact a function of society. The glamorous ones, who lead a dirty, diseased and isolated existence in the interstices of our society, are those that society as a whole simply chooses not to see. (Neil Gaiman employs a similar form of invisibility in Neverwhere [1996], in which the poor, homeless and cast-off people who are the denizens of the world under London simply cannot be seen by, or interact with, people in the world above: a potent if obvious metaphor for the plight of the homeless.)

As with so much of Priest’s recent work, The Glamour is an examination of a disintegrating personality – though, like both The Affirmation [1981] and The Prestige [1995], it also rests on complex questions of fiction and reality – and the glamour resonates with a tale of amnesia and false memory, so that throughout the book there are constant metaphors for not seeing and not being seen. Grey, the amnesiac, makes the world, or has his world made, in various different ways until he gradually approaches one that makes sense. Without memory, reality is not fixed and absolute, but something to be recreated by fixing together stray and not always reliable memories. Those who are deeply glamorous, like Grey’s rival Niall, on the other hand, are by their very invisibility detaching themselves from the world; they are unmaking reality. In this instance, therefore, invisibility becomes more than ever a perfect metaphor for alienation, but we see that it damages far more than the individual. By becoming invisible we do not become insubstantial, but rather the world itself loses substance.