Man Who Fell to Earth, The by Tevis, Walter, 1963

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One of the most beautifully shot movies that I have seen is Nicholas Roeg's 1976 film of Walter S. Tevis' novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie. I have seen the thing three times now, and I own the Criterion edition, and the power and beauty of the images never cease to take my breath away. But as much as I like looking at it, the story has always left me a little confused. Bowie's motivation changed from act to act in the film and Roeg never seemed very interested in informing the audience exactly what those motivations were. So when I ran across the novel in one of my local libraries I snatched it up quickly. Having forearmed myself with Tevis' take on the tale, which was the original, I can't wait to give the movie another try. The book is a dark and ominous tale about first contact, and how the best of intentions can be destroyed by conniving governments, depression and entropy. Three out of five stars.

I do not want to lead you to believe that the movie follows Tevis's novel closely. The core of the story is the same, but the characterization and the resolution of the story is markedly different than in the movie. In the book an alien travels to Earth in an attempt to save his people from a slow death caused by the near complete destruction of their home planet, Anthea, by nuclear war. Newton, an Anthean who has undergone fifteen years of cultural and physical training, travels to Earth in the last Anthean ship capable of making the crossing. With detailed knowledge of technologies that will revolutionize our economy, Newton creates a DuPont sized company called World Enterprises Corporation. His business interests make Newton extremely wealthy in a matter of a few years. Using his wealth Newton began to build an ark which would travel on its own to pick up the 300 odd survivors of Anthea and bring them to Earth. Though they will arrive in secrecy, the Antheans do have something to offer. Earth was teetering on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. To prevent Earth from repeating the mistakes of the Antheans, they planned journey to Earth and insinuate themselves into the power structures of the planet. With the wealth of World Enterprises Corporation, that would have been possible. Their goal was to keep power from concentrating in any one region or nation by quietly bolstering the strength of others with gifts of technology and money from World Enterprises. They also had technology that will stop nuclear bombs from exploding, and planned on quietly setting up defenses in every major city. With some help from certain human beings Newton executes his plan to build the ark. But it took years to amass the right amount of money to build the infrastructure and then the space craft. In the interim Newton became extremely depressed and took to drowning his sorrows in gin. Ultimately he "went native," and forgot why he was there in the first place. He had become insane from living among human beings for so many years, and he rationalized that his fellow Antheans would likely survive longer since Earth was probably doomed to go up in a radioactive fireball very soon. But before he could change his plan the FBI arrested him for being an illegal alien. Imagine their surprise when they gave him his medical exam and realized that they were more correct than they had believed!

The major difference between the book and the movie is certainly the role of Betty Jo, named Mary Lou in Roeg's movie. In the movie Mary Lou was an alcoholic hottie who spent large parts of the movie nude and drinking. In the book Betty Jo was a middle aged matron who was by no means a slattern, but who wanted romantic attention from Newton. In the movie she drove Newton to the bottle and kept him in it with sex. In the book she introduced him to the bottle, and showed him how to function while drinking constantly. The movie was a soused and kinky in the way that Leaving Las Vegas was, though not close in degree. The book was a nuanced tale of one being's slow descent into depression and insanity even while surrounded by someone who could love him, but probably never understand him.

Thematically Tevis is all over the place with this book. Obviously his main themes are of first contact, cultural incompatibility and alien invasion. Tevis compared Newton to Rumplestiltskin effectively, as Newton brought something good (golden straw/safety from war) but sought something very important (a princess daughter/control of Earth). Newton in the end though, as a hopeless, blind drunk, made a pretty pathetic herald for the invasion that never happened. Tevis also has something to say about social classes here too. He theorized that those of lower social castes are wiser than those of the higher ones. About Betty Jo he theorizes:

He had read enough history to realize that people like Betty Jo would once have been the industrial poor; but they were now the industrial well-to-do, living comfortably in government-built housing--Betty Jo rented a three-room dwelling unit in a huge old brick housing project, now a semi-slum--on checks from a bewildering diversity of agencies: Federal Welfare, State Welfare, Emergency Relief, Country Poor relief. This American society was so rich that it could support the eight or ten million members of Betty Jo's class in a kind of shabby, gin-and-used-furniture luxury in the cities, while the bulk of the county tanned its healthy cheeks by its suburban swimming pools and followed the current fashions in clothes and child-rearing and mixed drinks and wives, playing endless games with religion and psychoanalysis and "creative leisure." With the exception of Farnsworth, who belonged to still another, rarer class, that of the genuinely wealthy, all of the men whom Newton had met were of this middle class. All of them were very much alike and seeming, if you caught them off their guard, when the hand wasn't extended in friendliness of the face composed in its usual mask of smug and boyish charm, a little haggard, a little lost. It seemed to Newton that Betty Jo, with her gin, her boredom, her cats and her used furniture, was getting the better part of the social arrangement.

And after comparing Betty Jo's boorish qualities to the typical Anthean impassivity, Newton thinks:

She had shown him a drunken, drowsy vitality that Antheans might never, in their god-awful timelessness and wisdom, have known of or dreamed of. He felt like a man who had been surrounded by reasonably amiable, silly, and fairly intelligent animals, and has gradually discovered that their concepts and relationships are more complex than his training could have led him to suspect. Such a man might discover that, in one or more of the many aspects of weighing and judging that are available to a high intelligence, the animals who surround him and who foul their own lairs and eat their own filth might be happier and wiser than he.

Surprisingly, Newton has a much better impression of Earthlings than these two thoughts reveal. I suspect that a part of his depression came from the realization that a lower culture can be better, stronger, more vital and better prepared to survive than a higher one. But Newton's ultimate moment of epiphany does not really come until he is captured by the government and held against his will for months. Newton sat in his cage wondering when his interrogators would ask him that one critical question: "Where are you from?" That moment came as he realized that they already knew everything, and wanted nothing more than for the world to forget about him.

If you enjoyed the movie at all, or if you had any questions about what Roeg was trying to say, then this book is for you. Itís dark and depressing, but itís written well enough to keep most interested. It is more about the plight of its protagonist than his mission, and more about loneliness and descent into depravity than salvation. It has just been republished, so it should also be easy to acquire.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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