Have we found the ultimate invisibility story? Read on…
In hindsight, I should have realized that I would find a story that takes invisibility to the extreme! Once we’ve had invisible people, invisible monsters, and invisible cities, it was inevitable that we would get to an entire invisible planet!
“The Invisible Planet,” by Ed Earl Repp, first appeared in the October 1940 issue of Amazing Stories, which was the very first science fiction magazine. Ed Earl Repp was a regular contributor to the pulp magazines, though after World War II he focused his energy on writing screenplays for Westerns. One can understand the passion for Westerns, because “The Invisible Planet” is very much an action-packed adventure with lots of gunplay and a cartoonish villain!
The action is set on the spaceliner Oracle, transporting passengers and cargo. The Oracle is traveling at a time of war, when a fanatical warlord named Vickers has led hordes of Plutonians to defeat the forces of Earth and Mars. The only hope for those planets is a set of new weapons for the space fleet, reportedly en route. The crew of the Oracle wonder if they’re carrying those weapons in their cargo hold.
One passenger on the liner is a permanent member. Jared Nathan is in permanent exile in space, barred from ever leaving the Oracle or even talking to anyone on board. Nathan had been found guilty of working with Vickers and releasing him from captivity at a crucial time; he has been held responsible for all the death and carnage Vickers has caused since. But one member of the crew, Ian Patrick, has been secretly chatting with Nathan out of pity and curiosity. As the story begins, Nathan has a warning for Patrick: change the course of the Oracle, because Vickers knows it is carrying the guns and is planning to intercept it! Patrick ignores the plea but soon regrets it, as Vickers attacks their ship, seizes the guns, and leaves them to die adrift in space. The crew of the Oracle must launch a desperate plan to not only get themselves to safety, but also stop Vickers.
But where is the war criminal? Nathan has a hypothesis: Vickers must be operating from a planet or massive asteroid that is literally invisible. But can Nathan himself be trusted?
“The Invisible World” is really classic pulp sci-fi: there are spaceship battles, gun battles on ship, lots of daring maneuvers, a maniacal villain, and a few clever twists and turns.
The invisibility of the invisible world is a classic sort of invisibility cloak, but with the twist that it applies to an entire world:
“I’ve suspected the existence of invisible stars and planets for years,” he emphasized. “The erratic behavior of certain stars can only be explained by the fact that they have invisible companions— binaries, which throw them off their normal courses. Light rays have been bent in the laboratory. Why not in space?
“A gaseous envelope around an asteroid might bend the light rays so that the asteroid would be completely invisible! That, Mr. Patrick, is what I expect to find is the case here. We’re going to seek out Vickers, and when we find him—we’ll destroy him for good!”
Repp, through Nathan, imagines a natural sort of invisibility cloak formed by the refraction of light. The effect would be very similar to an ordinary mirage, where the gradient of air density near the surface of the ground causes light to follow a curved path:
In “The Invisible World,” Repp imagines the gradient of gases in the atmosphere of Vicker’s asteroid base bending light waves around the asteroid itself, working like a natural version of modern metamaterial cloaks:
It seems unlikely that an atmosphere would manage to have the right combination and density of gases to pull this off, but Repp seems to have taken a page from H.G. Wells, who talked about the central idea of a story as being a “magic trick” and that everything else should be as grounded as possible (via Wikipedia):
As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.
In this case, the central “magic trick” is the invisible mirage planet! The rest of the story elements are not particularly plausible themselves, but they are more standard science fiction fare that readers would already have accepted, like rocketships and disintegrator cannons.
This was a surprisingly fun story! It doesn’t take itself too seriously and has a nice human touch in the character of Nathan. You can read it here.