After several important, heavy novels, I’ve gone back to some mid-20th century science fiction as a bit of a break. Since The Man Who Fell to Earth was reissued in a pretty new Penguin Modern Classics edition, I’ve had my eye on it. Fortunately, it came into work the other day, so I was able to give it a go.
A strange man comes walking into a small town in smalltown America, and sells a diamond ring. Several years later, Thomas Jerome Newton is a multimillionaire, using his extraterrestrial technological knowledge to create objects that the world wants in great demand. But a greater plan is at foot, and as his secret threatens to become public, everything will fall apart.
One of the many, many invasion novels of the 20th century (and indeed, if V is anything to go by, the 21st), this remains different for two important reasons. The first is that the alien invader is our protagonist – we see things from his point of view. The second is that the alien is not necessarily out to get us.
Having an alien as your focus is a brave choice, and for the most part, Tevis manages to make him just alien enough for him to be believable. By having him physically look like a human, we don’t have to bother with all those extra tentacles that would make him stand out. Yet he still is physically different – taller, slimmer, and being used to a planet with less gravity, his bones are not as strong, meaning when he falls, he falls hard. It is these small things that really hit home with the reader, and for the most part, actually make us sympathise with him. This is a man who has learned about Earth (American) culture through interstellar television broadcasts, so while he might understand a lot, he doesn’t understand everything. His interaction with Betty Jo is perfectly pitched, and they are the ultimate odd couple. Both of them turn to drink in order to forget about their problems, and his addiction to gin and tonic is, at first cute, but later, tragically naive.
The Antheans – the race of people to which Newton belongs – are a tragic invention. Their world has been destroyed by constant warring and environemntal damage – a timely reminder to humanity that this is what will happen if the Cold War continues to accelerate at the rate it currently was. Much like every other cautionary tale of the late 20th century. But what becomes more interesting is that the 300 Anthean refugees that wish to come to Earth have, to Newton’s knowledge, no interest in conquering Earth. How could they? 300 aliens on a planet of several billion – aliens that are weaker on Earth’s gravity, and have easily snappable bones, like bones. Instead, they wish to give Earth the benefit of their technology and knowledge in order to stop Earth from destroying itself. But can one every truly be a benevolent dictator? Is that how power really works?
And yet, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Most humans seem unconcerned with Newton’s reclusive lifestyle, and it is not for many years that his two closest friends find out the truth about him. But eventually, everything comes crashing down. The CIA have had spies in the building, and Newton is arrested and taken in for questioning. And still, he does nothing. It is the final folly of humanity that brings him and his plan down. They know the truth, but have no desire to make this information public, bcause who would believe them? He is ready to be released from his ordeal with the CIA, but some tiny miscommunication in paperwork means that he is blinded. And that’s all it takes. No one can do anything with him anymore. It is the infighting of human politics – in this case, American politics – that mean we can no longer use the technological benefits of a superior alien, and he cannot carry out his plan of bringing his people here. Everything has failed.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is unique for these reasons. It is not the greatest novel anyone will ever read (I hope), but as an example of mid 20th century science fiction, it is meaty enough to be going on with, and though the trope is nothing new, I always like reading about morally ambiguous tales where it is actually the inaction of humanity that causes our own downfall.