Review of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ by Walter Tevis

This is a fascinating novel. I liked it very much. Along with Flowers for Algernon, it belongs to that category of books considered to be science fiction but which are really criticisms of modern society.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is mainly set in Kentucky in the future (the 1980s), to which a humanoid alien from the planet Anthea has travelled. Going by the name of Thomas Jerome Newton, he amasses a huge fortune by patenting new technology. He was sent to Earth with a purpose but as time goes by, he goes native. Not only is he struggling to work out what to do, the government are beginning to suspect him. The story is narrated in the third person, focusing on Newton, his housekeeper Betty Jo and a chemist, Bryce. They are all interesting characters. Undoubtedly the writing is a little dated, but it’s easy to read.

Although there is some science, even if some of it’s fabricated, the main themes of the book are alcoholism and isolation. I don’t usually like to infer too much about an author’s personal life from their fiction, but the frequent references to alcohol and the main characters’ reliance on it are surely evident of Tevis’ problems. We can even see him as Newton, the fragile alien in the grip of an existential crisis, sick of pop culture and suspicious of authority. There is also a Cold War atmosphere (as in much science fiction of the era) with Newton warning that atomic weapons almost wiped out his species and that the same fate is in store for the Earth.

Famously the book was adapted into a film starring David Bowie. I’ll be discussing this in a future ‘film of the book’ post.

First published in 1963. My edition is by SF Masterworks (Gollancz), 2016, with an introduction by Ken MacLeod.

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