The Tarnhelm Effect

I've been thinking about invisibility lately. I suspect that at least some of this is due to the trailers for that new Hollow Man movie coming out, adding the latest to the "invisible man" sub-genre of movies. What I find amusing about invisibility is that people take the concept to mean some sort of immunity or complete transparency to light. Anything else, even in such works of fiction as the Lord Darcy stories by Randle Garrett and the Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton, is dismissed as "not true invisibility."

This common perspective is that something is only truly invisible if it physically cannot be seen, whether by the naked eye, a camera or anything else. Implicit, and sometimes even explicit, in the concept is that that which is invisible has a strange interaction with light itself as mentioned above.

I have a problem with this thought. Let's start with assuming that someone becomes invisible this way. Whether light warps around him/her, reflects only outside the visible spectrum, simply passes through him/her unrefracted and unreflected or whatever, such a person would be functionally blind because his/her own eyes rely on visible light. I suppose that if the person could absorb, but not reflect or refract light, he/she might be able to see, but there would a rippling effect in the air at the least and a visible black hole at the most — not very hard to spot.

Frankly, what I find more annoying is the underlying assumption that "real" invisibility belongs to the realm of physics and that anything else is a pale imitation. I realize that quantum mechanics and chaos theory have a lot of magicians seeking to "bridge the gap" between physics and magic. I also don't care. I do not seek to "validate" my magic, either to myself or others, by proving some link with physics. To me, physics is just another model, to be applied when it seems useful or entertaining and ignored when it isn't.

So if it isn't about being ignored by light, what is invisibility? Well, literally it is not being visible. It's not just not being seen, Monty Python references aside, but the ability to be not-seen. If one is invisible, one may walk unnoticed through hallways at work or streets downtown. One who is invisible may sit ignored in a room because one attracts no notice.

In the Lord Darcy stories, this is called the Tarnhelm Effect — a wizard can use magic to influence people to dismiss, ignore or otherwise avoid looking at a specified object or person. This functionally renders the object invisible, since people can't or won't notice it and therefore not really see it. Like the purloined letter, it becomes unseen in plain sight. In some ways this is more funtional than physics-based invisibility because if it is done properly no one will hear your footsteps or even see what you have picked up and started reading.

I suspect that it's the last part there that bothers people about the Tarnhelm Effect. When many people think of invisbility, they imagine using it to frighten people by moving visible objects about while they remain unseen or issuing threats while the victim cannot tell exactly where they are. Too many Claude Reins movies, I think. Anyway, clearly trying this with the Tarnhelm Effect would not work. Any such activity would either be ignored or spoil the spell.

The Tarnhelm Effect can be put to many uses, if one does not seek to try direct intimidation with it. Further, I see no reason why a version of it could not be used on machines — small glitches occur all the time, so how improbable is it that a few happen at just the right time — and by expansion aggragate entities such as corporations.

Of course, I may be a bit biased here. I've never considered physics-based invisibility to be worth the effort of an attempt. On the other hand, I've had great success with the Tarnhelm Effect.


Four Winds Bar

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