Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Man Who Fell To Earth - Walter Tevis


A man walks into a jewellery store in a tiny town somewhere in Kentucky. He's very peculiar looking; tall and thin and wide-eyed like a bird, with albino white hair. He sells an 18K gold ring and gets sixty dollars for it. He knows he's been cheated but he doesn't mind as he's got hundreds of other rings just like it and what's more important is that he now has some actual money.
A year later we find him entering a lawyer's office in New York with plans for nine electronic and photographic inventions to be patented. His aim is to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Five hundred million dollars within five years to be exact.
When next we meet him he's the reclusive head of World Enterprises Corporation and he's a multi-millionaire, ensconced in a very special research project: The building of a space ship.

The Man Who Fell To Earth, written by Walter Tevis and first published in 1963 is the novel on which Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film of the same name starring David Bowie is based. Though Bowie is brilliantly cast and it's the best film he's ever acted in, on first viewing (and thereafter, even) it can be somewhat confusing due to Roeg's rapid fire editing and non-linear style of telling a story. Whilst the film is visually stunning, the book is much more coherent and for this reason is much more satisfying.

The name of the entrepreneur building the space ship is Thomas Jerome Newton and he's an extraterrestrial from a planet called Anthea. He's been sent to Earth because after countless wars his own world is on the verge of extinction. There are just 300 of his kind left and they have limited fuel supplies, dwindling food stocks and hardly any water. Their plan and their only hope is for Newton to gather materials on Earth to build a space ferry that can be despatched to their planet to bring everyone else back to Earth.
As huge and as ambitious this project is it's not, however, the only problem that needs to be resolved. By picking up television and radio signals from Earth the Antheans have been monitoring and studying humankind for some time and they believe that Earth is set on a course for destruction, being brought about through the proliferation of atomic weapons and impending all out nuclear war. If they're to make Earth their new home then they need to put a halt to this race to war or else what would be the point in coming here? They would simply be escaping to a planet that has even less time left than their own.

Newton is a stranger in a strange land, and whilst building his empire and developing his space programme he comes to realise that the television broadcasts from which he has studied mankind have only told half the story. People, he learns, are far more complicated and far more terrifying than he at first thought and what with their tangle of emotions, their curious foibles and their desperate loneliness are actually very difficult to deal with. He becomes enveloped in self-doubt, and whilst finding solace in alcohol he starts to wonder whether spending too much time with humans might actually send him and his fellow Antheans insane.

As he starts to fall slowly apart, sinking ever more deeper into alcoholism he is of superior intelligence to know that all the time he himself is being monitored by FBI and CIA agents. Finally, in a moment of weakness (or perhaps lucidity?) Newton confesses all to his scientist friend, perhaps knowing - though it's not actually stated - that the agents are listening in. He is duly arrested and subjected to all kinds of medical tests and examinations before being allowed to go free purely due to politics - it's an election year and the President doesn't want Newton's arrest and imprisonment used against him by the opposing political party.
From X-rays being beamed into his overly sensitive alien eyes his sight, however, has been ruined and Newton has been left blind. But even more tragically, his mind has also been ruined and Newton has now been left more human than alien.
The last we see of him he is drunk and blind and sobbing, knowing that Earth is doomed and knowing that there is nothing whatsoever to be done about it.

A recurring motif throughout the book is Pieter Brueghel's famous painting 'The Fall of Icarus'. At one point, Newton discusses the painting with his scientist friend and points out that in the picture the sun is half-way below the horizon which means it must be late in the day. As the sun was at noon when Icarus flew too close to it and fell, it means that Icarus had been falling a long way and for a long time. He must have been falling since noon.
Is Icarus symbolic of Newton? And is Newton symbolic of Icarus? Well, of course. Newton is the man who fell to earth. And so too is Icarus.

On another occasion, Newton ponders over the class divide in American society and wonders if the working class might have the better part of the social arrangement? Though less wealthy, they seem to Newton to be less haggard and less lost than the middle class. Alluding to Brueghel's painting, it's the workers in the field - the farmer at his plough, the shepherd with his flock - who are the larger, more prominent figures, suggesting it's actually they who are the most important, not Icarus.
Those same figures in the painting are shown as doing nothing to save Icarus from drowning. They're all otherwise engaged and in fact, are failing to even notice him as are the sailors on the nearby ship, summed up (and quoted in the book) by Auden's poem about the painting: '... 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.' Similarly, nobody tries to stop Newton from drinking so much and nobody comes to his aid when he's arrested.
Ultimately, Icarus is not the main point of Brueghel's painting - it's what's going on all around him as in the workers at their tasks, as he drowns in the sea. And likewise, Newton is not the main point of Tevis's book - it's what's going on all around him as in impending nuclear war, as he drowns in alcohol.

A curious thing about The Man Who Fell To Earth is the involvement of David Bowie. It must be remembered that Walter Tevis wrote the book in 1963, thirteen years before the film was made and Bowie was cast as Newton. In the book, Newton needs to get his space ship built within five years as this is how long the Antheans anticipate there is left before war will occur. One of Bowie's most well known songs, released in 1972 and the opening track of the Ziggy Stardust album is 'Five Years' in which he sings "Five years, that's all we've got". In 'Starman' on the same album he sings "There's a starman waiting in the sky, he's told us not to blow it cos he knows it's all worthwhile". Then there's 'Space Oddity', 'Life On Mars', 'Ashes To Ashes' and even the creation of his Ziggy Stardust character itself. It goes on. His album 'Low' is comprised of music that was meant to be in the film though in the end not used. It's sleeve is a shot from the film as is the sleeve of his 'Station To Station' album.
It needs, then, to be asked: Did Bowie read Walter Tevis's book years before his rise to pop stardom? If so, did it give him ideas? Was it just sheer coincidence that Nicolas Roeg cast him as Newton? Does Bowie owe his whole career to Walter Tevis?

Gentle, calm, methodical, visionary. Influential.
The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis is a very good book indeed.

The Fall of Icarus - Brueghel
John Serpico


  1. Oddly I enjoyed the book a great deal more than the film. I say oddly because I loved the film when I first saw it. I watched it again recently, and for me David Bowie somehow got in the way of the story. Still love Roeg though.

  2. I have not seen the book but fell in love with film for years and write about it (the film) trying to draft a filmic analysis. I did not know for example the imminence of nuclear war destroying the earth. But this is the smartest movie about aliens placing a series of questions about feelings, emotions, sexuality, intelligence and cosmic vision of a possible alien. The film has an aura of mystery and the viewer is fascinated by TJN behavior. Beautiful gift Tevis, Roeg and Bowie for all of us.Now, the soul of David Bowie can finally surf free in outer space as he always taught us to surf listening to their beautiful, irreverent and thought-provoking songs. Love to Bowie.