RETRO Book Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth

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Part of the charm of The Man Who Fell to Earth, written by Walter Tevis, is the time in which it was written. Like many genre novels, and sci-fi in particular, during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s; it was written during a period of scientific revelation and excitement. Hints existed of potential future technologies, so while writers of this time had a head-start in formulating ideas for stories set in the future, it was a period of great experimentation and creativity. Like watching the original Star Trek, there is so much enjoyment to be had in reveling in the ideas that these writers had; squeezing far-flung technological inventions that defy reality, from existing ‘analogue’ machinery (someone please point me to early, realistic descriptions of what we would call digital), such as Thomas Jerome Newton’s World Enterprises photographic film (a self-developing roll of film).

It is this kind of invention that, for me, makes reading the sci-fi and pulp stories of this period so enjoyable, and The Man Who Fell to Earth was no exception. Simply put, it is a realistic interpretation of a lone alien – of advanced technology – living on Earth. This alien is Thomas Jerome Newton.

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David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth Copyright British Lion Film Corporation

I arrived at the book second – the movie coming first – and I was surprised by the description of Thomas and how it so perfectly seemed to fit David Bowie: “His frame was improbably slight, his features delicate, his fingers long, thin…” There were some ‘alien’ irregularities, obviously, but it was like he was born to play the role, so inevitably it was difficult to separate the book from the movie in terms of visualizing the characters; however, I was very happy to find that the movie deviated quite a lot from the book, both in plot and tone. You could easily enjoy either with prior knowledge of the other.

The difference is largely due to the characters: I found the characters in the book much more subdued, somewhat grounded in reality. Thomas is a lot more delicate; there is a constant fear that he could break at any point, literally (he has hollow bones), so the mere thought of being touched – much less engaging in any sexual activity – is terrifying. I imagine someone reading this without bias would be teetering on an anxious ledge, fearful of the delicacy of Thomas’ frame. To be so light that the forces involved in a rising elevator could break bones is an interesting character trait that puts readers constantly on edge.

Other characters, such as Bryce, Farnsworth and Mary-Lou are actually, and surprisingly, less well-developed than the movie. Or, at least, their development is less extreme; a sort of wondering malaise punctuated with bursts of excitement when they are given purpose, Bryce and Mary-Lou in particular. Is this Tevis’ manifestation of humankind? It certainly imbues the book with melancholia, as characters drown themselves in alcohol, most notably gin; a whirlpool Thomas finds himself falling into despite his best intentions, pushing his body’s boundaries as he tries desperately to get drunk. Thomas, an advanced intelligence with an enlightened agenda, corrupted by humanity. Or is it that power corrupts all, that old trope?

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David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth Copyright British Lion Film Corporation

The deeper you get into the story, through revelation and with each development, the sadder it seems to become. The story of the novel is Thomas’ story: his struggles with loneliness and isolation, simultaneously missing his family back on his home planet and not being able to get really close to a human being; his fear of being discovered and his relief when it comes; his despair at the damage humanity is doing to its own planet and that they don’t know how good they have it. His is an arc both intelligent and poignant, and it holds on to hope almost to the end, where the reader becomes as petrified as he at the prospect of something horrifying.

This feeling of being grounded is also reflected in Tevis’ prose style; simple without flourish – it makes for an easy read, and at 184 pages, is not strenuous. Written during the time of the cold war, with the threat of bombs very real, it is inevitably a product of its time; but as I said, this is part of its charm. I wager Tevis’ own feelings on the matter of humanity’s fate would not have been far from his predictions in this book, such is his clarity and conviction of description. In many ways it’s an allegory for the hippies and humanists of the era; the desire to help – to change things for the good – is there, but even with all the money and the best intentions – is it possible?

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Adam Smith