My book on the history and physics of invisibility is off to the publisher for final approval, though there’s still some little stuff I want to add, including a comprehensive bibliography of stories about invisibility. Along the way, I’ve read a lot of stories about invisibility in science fiction, and I thought I’d share some thoughts about some of those books, since there wasn’t enough space — or excuse — to go into detail on all of them in my own text.
With my cat physics book, I was surprised at how many little things I learned even up to the final weeks before sending it to the publisher, and with my invisibility book, it has been no different. I did a last-minute literature search to see if there were any interesting stories about invisibility I had missed, and came across a novel written by none other than the famed Jules Verne (1828-1905), author of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870).
The novel is The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz, written in 1897 but not released until after Verne’s death. It was first published in 1910 after heavy editing by Verne’s son Michel. Remarkably, an English version of Verne’s original manuscript was not published until 2011, by The University of Nebraska Press.
I snapped up a copy as soon as I learned of its existence, and read it in a few days. What did I think of Verne’s last manuscript?
The story is narrated by the Frenchman Henry Vidal, telling the story of his journey to Ragz, in Hungary, to attend the wedding of his brother Marc Vidal to the beautiful Myra Roderich, the daughter of a successful doctor. But even before he departs for Ragz, Henry learns that Myra and her family had rejected an offer of marriage from a sinister German named Wilhelm Storitz. Nevertheless, Henry has a pleasant trip down the Danube to Ragz, and the first few days of his visit and meeting with his new in-laws are a delight.
But then mysterious and sinister things start to happen. The wedding notice of Myra and Marc is found ripped to shreds at the town hall, though nobody should have been able to get to it without at least being seen. Then, at the engagement party, an unseen intruder disrupts the ceremony, singing offensive songs and stealing the bridal wreath in full view of all the party guests.
It soon becomes clear that Wilhelm Storitz, the son of a famed chemist Otto Storitz, has learned the secret of invisibility from his late father, and is using it to wreak havoc upon the Roderich family. His attacks escalate, and the entire city is thrown into a panic. Can Storitz be stopped before irreparable damage is done?
Storitz seems clearly inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, as Verne began writing the novel the same year that Wells’ masterpiece came out. There are striking similarities, in that both novels feature an invisible madman using his powers to cause violence and panic. Verne does not spend as much time as Wells did in explaining how the invisibility is accomplished, however, and simply hints at the use of “Roentgen rays” — what most people know today as X-rays. Immediately after their discovery, X-rays were indelibly associated with invisibility, no doubt because of their ability to seemingly make the human body transparent. Wells used this explanation in his own novel, though with much more detail and optics.
Overall, though it is a fascinating read, I can see why Storitz is not as well known as The Invisible Man. The story is relatively straightforward, and has none of the science fiction depth of Wells’ own book. It is also relatively slow-going: the book begins with what could really be described as a travelogue, as Henry describes in minute detail his travel down the Danube to Ragz. It is a lovely enough description, but not exactly what people are usually looking for in their science fiction and horror.
The novel does have a surprisingly dark ending. I will not share the details here, but it is uncharacteristically grim for novels of this sort at the time. When Michel rewrote his late father’s work, he modified the ending to be a more traditional happy ending.
There is some unintended humor in reading the book, and it is explained in the introduction to the 2011 edition. In 1870, France and Germany went to war in what is called the Franco-Prussian war, and France ended up being defeated within a year. This left Verne with a great hatred towards Germans and Germany, and he channeled his rage into the sinister character of Wilhelm Storitz. Verne’s hatred of Germans is reflected in every benevolent character in the book, who regard “that German” with a disgust that is quite comical in hindsight.
So: The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is not a great book, but it is a fascinating bit of literary history, and often unintentionally funny. It is also illustrative of the explosive interest in invisibility that appeared in society in the wake of the discovery of X-rays.
And I should add that I am grateful to The University of Nebraska Press for releasing this unaltered edition!