The Chameleon Man, by William P. McGivern

Getting closer to the end of my run of invisibility posts! Here’s one that’s a little different…

So when is something unable to be seen but not invisible? Well, the answer is handily demonstrated by William P. McGivern’s “The Chameleon Man,” which appeared in the January 1942 issue of Amazing Stories!

Let’s come back to this picture in a few moments. But here we’ve got a story about a different way of not being seen, and it’s worth talking about it!

The story is another painful-to-me comedic stories about invisibility. It begins as the narrator, a journalist for the Daily Standard, wanders up to the office of his colleague who writes the column “The Soldier’s Friend.” The colleague isn’t present, but soon enough someone else is — someone who cannot easily be seen! The unseen man, whose name is Horatio Heely, has been suffering for months from a chameleon-like ability to blend into his surroundings almost perfectly. With a great amount of willpower, he can make himself visible, but most of the time he simply blends in.

How does this miraculous power work? Horatio consulted specialists, and this is the best answer he got:

“I’m not sure what causes me to fade-out like this. I’ve been to a half dozen doctors and psychiatrists and they aren’t sure either. But it has something to do with personality development, they think. The last psychiatrist I visited told me that I had a very colorless personality and abnormal inhibitions and frustrations. He said that my present condition was a physical manifestation of my colorless personality.”

Horatio came to the office of “The Soldier’s Friend” because he wants to enlist in the military, but no service branch will take him in his current condition. He doesn’t realize that the narrator is not “The Soldier’s Friend,” and the unscrupulous narrator keeps up the deception. Promising Horatio that he’s got a plan to get him enlisted, he instead sets him up to be a secret helper to the magician Mystiffio and his stage assistant Alice. Of course, the narrator will get a huge financial cut of all the profits from this new partnership!

Silliness ensues, and eventually the narrator’s deception is discovered. Alice gets Horatio into the Army in the camouflage division, and Mystiffio decides to enlist, too, to work with carrier pigeons as messengers! By the end of the story, even the frustrated narrator decides to join the Marines.

This conclusion seems a bit odd, until you look again at the date of publication of the story: January 1942. In December of 1941, of course, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, propelling the United States into World War II. “The Chameleon Man” is a patriotic recruitment drive dressed up as a science fiction story! I don’t have any evidence that this was official government propaganda put into the magazine, and it may very well have been McGivern capturing the zeitgeist of the moment to make his story more likely to see publication.

This story is a good opportunity to talk about the meaning of the word “invisible,” and how suggestive it can be. The word itself literally means “unable to be seen,” and there are plenty of ways that this can be achieved in a mundane fashion, including hiding behind a tree. But in science fiction, the word “invisible” usually means that the object in question literally passes light around it/through it and leaves no trace of the object itself! Even McGivern realized this, though he uses the word invisible in several senses in the story:

Looking carefully, I realized that the young man was not invisible; he was just easy to miss because he was so inconspicuously blended into the background of the office.

The camouflage of a chameleon, or octopus, is more of a perception-based invisibility: it relies on the viewer being unable to distinguish between the background objects and the hidden object. And this can be a spectacularly effective strategy, as this often-shared gif shows:

Original video apparently from the lab of Roger T. Hanlon.

You can see that the octopus hasn’t made itself see-through; it has just matched very closely the patterning of the plant it has attached itself to.

What I would refer to as optical invisibility is what we’ve seen in the rest of the blog posts in this series: the ability of a creature or object to pass light through or around itself and send it on its way. In my book, coming out next year (hopefully), we will focus almost entirely on this optical invisibility.

Looking back at the illustration that accompanied the story, shared at the start of this post, one guesses that the illustrator didn’t know the difference! The chameleon man looks perfectly see-through, though he would have no way of creating this perfect illusion that would match the objects underneath him/behind him from that angle.

So “The Chameleon Man” isn’t a terribly funny story in my opinion, but it does teach us some interesting lessons about how things are or are not seen!

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