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“The Man Who Fell To Earth”

September 19, 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

How did I stumble upon this 48-year-old novel by Walter Tevis? This past summer, I was at an independent theater in downtown Dallas to see The Tree of Life. Sitting in my seat, I saw a preview for a re-release of the 1976 film starring David Bowie. The trailer for the film was fantastic and after The Tree of Life, I had to know more.

When I discovered the film was an adaptation of a 1963 novel, I realized I had a rare opportunity to experience a classic novel without having already seen the film adaptation. Having already seen the film versions prior to reading the novels in several cases including Jurassic Park and No Country for Old Men, I knew I had to seek out the book before trying to wrangle up a copy of the out-of-print celluloid.

The novel was unlike any reading experience I’ve ever had. Here is a quick synopsis that won’t spoil the goods: Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien in human disguise, comes to Earth with a mission, but first he needs money. Developing patents using his other-worldly knowledge, he builds an empire and raises an incredible sum of money in the span of just a few years. Despite the capitalistic success, his mission becomes endangered when he begins to cave to the vices of humanity.

It’s ultimately a portrait of an eccentric and reclusive mogul, or perhaps a lonely artist, or even an alcoholic. It’s a story we’ve all been exposed to before, essentially a biography, but with a sci-fi twist.

One of the most gripping elements of the story is the depiction of power relationships. Newton, the possessor of endless extra-terrestrial knowledge, has a frail and body ill-suited to the rigors of everyday human life. Despite his intellectual capacity, he is weak and brittle compared to his human acquaintances. At points in the novel, it becomes painfully clear that despite being the smartest being on the planet, Newton is physically at the mercy of hulking Neanderthals.

That’s a scary thought. Having recently seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I had a similar feeling to what I experienced in The Man Who Fell to Earth. It is completely terrifying to imagine yourself in a situation where your physical well-being is at the mercy of another physically-dominant yet less-intelligent race. In Apes, all humans were in Newton’s position.

Even reading it several decades after its’ publication, this story manages to seem perfectly suited to the time in which it was written, while not feeling out-dated. In fact, it still feels prescient; for example, Tevis startlingly predicts the digital music revolution which is just mind-boggling considering even CDs were still a long way off in 1963.

Only around 200 pages long, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a breezy read and well worth your time. Be sure not to mistake “breezy” for “fluff.” This novel has a few intense moments in it; the climax and denouement are likely to linger on your mond long after reading.

The story is so engaging, and at times heart-wrenching, that a voracious reader will probably consume the novel in one or two sittings. Consider it strongly recommended.

  1. Great post, Tony. The book doesn’t seem like something I would normally read but it sounds like it was a great/fast read. I always try to read the book first, so I’m glad you did with this one. I love when they make a book into a movie even if it is years later because you finally get a “real” face to the name, often the movie is disappointing after reading the book but it is still a nice treat!

  2. Tony, I never would have guessed that you were into science-fiction! This is very good insight and full of description. I really enjoyed it.

  3. Part of what I’m trying to do with this site is encourage non-fans of sci-fi to expand their tastes just a tiny bit. By sharing information on worthwhile stories, I hope I can drum some interest in works of art such as “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Thanks for commenting!

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