By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #10 – The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell to Earth is a classic science fiction novel - but it is not a typical one. Want to know why? Read on!

I love a good science fiction novel. Not because of its space battles. Not because of the inevitable zip-zap flash-crash laser action between good and evil. Not even because of time travelling and parallel universes. (Though I must admit I don’t hate those, either.) What fascinates me about science fiction is what they say about real life. Ironically, it is the futuristic setting of science fiction that facilitates close scrutiny of our own society, and Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth does exactly that – without including time travel, battles, and laser action – and it does it oh, so well. Why? Read on!

The Man Who Fell to Earth is about Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from the planet Anthea, who decides to fly to Earth in order to save his family. Forced to stay there due to a malfunctioning spacecraft, he adapts himself to American culture. Aided by his advanced scientific knowledge (he establishes a corporation and manages it without ever showing his face), two friends who are aware of his extraterrestrial identity, and copious amounts of alcohol, his life seems to flourish. While Newton is supposed to be an outsider, it is quite uncanny how prolonged exposure to human society makes him almost like everyone else. Almost, but not quite; his body is not used to the Earth’s gravity or the alcohol he consumes. It must come as no surprise that his secret is eventually discovered by the Government – and what happens next shows quite clearly what the real differences are between Newton and the people he’s trying to resemble.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, despite having an alien protagonist, is filled with quintessentially human themes: greed, xenophobia, loneliness, adaptability, the consequences of technology, and alcoholism, all of which are intricately linked together – just like they are in real life. But there is one element mentioned in the book that really illustrates how humanity works, and that’s the story of another man who famously fell to Earth: Icarus. Having given wings by his father, he flew too close to the sun, causing the wax on his wings to melt, and fell into the ocean. Two works of art inspired by this story feature in the book, and, interestingly, their focus lies not on Icarus, but on the people witnessing this event: the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Bruegel, and Musée des Beaux Arts, a poem by W.H. Auden. Here they both are:

Pieter Bruegel de Oude - De val van Icarus.jpg
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel

(…) In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

According to both artists, people fail to notice this tragedy taking place, or simply do not care enough to pay close attention. The same is implied in the novel when it comes to Newton: as long as he continues to contribute to people’s fortunes, they turn a blind eye to Newton’s lack of public appearance, or, if he does show up, to the way he looks. It might also be said that this novel provides a sort of sequel to Icarus’ story, by wondering what would have happened if he had been rescued from the water. Would they have taken an interest in him, or would they have been satisfied taking his wings and leaving him be?

The Man Who Fell to Earth is not a typical science fiction novel – and that’s why I love it so much. It’s not about space and all the things that usually come with it. Instead, it’s a novel that examines humanity and its ability to deal with the unfamiliar. It’s about suffering, it’s about loneliness, and it’s about outsiders, and what they do to make sure they fit in – even if doing so could have disastrous consequences. Let’s wrap up this post by quoting David Bowie, who identified strongly with Newton and portrayed him in the 1976 film adaptation. Years earlier, he sang: “Turn and face the strange.” According to this novel, humanity clearly lacks the ability to do so.

Have you read this novel, seen the movie (or the musical Lazarus)? Do you identify with Newton? Is the novel a realistic study of humanity? Let me know in the comments! Also make sure to follow me for more book musings!

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