Another look at The Man Who Fell To Earth

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

Those enigmatic lines from Hart Crane’s The Broken Tower preface Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, a sci-fi classic that has been somewhat overshadowed by Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film adaptation, currently being replayed in British cinemas.

That’s unfortunate. Roeg’s interpretation has many memorable scenes and images that entangle themselves in the mind, and is electrified by a charismatic lead performance by David Bowie, an elegant alien presence. But while the film captures something of the book’s strangeness, Roeg’s habitual desire to shock through the shoehorning of several gratuitous scenes into his movie adds nothing to Tevis’ subtle tale. Since the film has gathered so much attention I thought it worth writing a few lines about the novel.

To recap the essence of the story: Thomas Newton is an alien who makes a solo voyage to Earth on a desperate mission to save his people, whose dying desert world Anthea has been ravaged by atomic warfare. The Antheans are close physical relations to humans, and have identified Earth as a possible home for the few who have survived the devastation of their planet. (It isn’t clear whether they wish to live anonymously or as colonisers.) Newton’s mission seeks to exploit their superior technological knowledge: he brings with him blueprints for technologies unknown on Earth which, when patented, will allow him to build a business empire able to fund the development of a space craft that – under the guise of public-spirited space exploration – will allow him to make the return journey to Anthea and ferry the remnant of his people back to Earth.

For those unfamiliar with the book or film I won’t spoil it by saying more. Only to say that the novel touches on several interesting themes passed over by the film. In retrospect the book belongs to the first wave of environmental literature that appeared in the early 1960s. Tevis invites us to see the Earth afresh through Newton’s astonished extraterrestrial eyes, scarcely able to comprehend the richness of our natural world, so different from the wastelands he has left behind:

He could see the water of the pond through the trees, and the sight of it made his breath catch, for there was so much of it. He had seen it before like that, in his two days on earth… but he was not yet used to it. It was another of those things that he had expected but was still a shock to see. He knew, of course, about the great oceans and about the lakes and rivers, had known about them since he was a boy; but the actual sight of the profusion of water in a single pond was breath-taking.

He began to see a kind of beauty in the strangeness of the field, too. It was quite different from what he had been taught to expect – as, he had already discovered, were many of the things of this world – yet there was pleasure now for him in its alien colours and textures, its new sights and smells. Its sounds, too; for his ears were very acute and he heard many strange and pleasant noises in the grass, the diverse rubbings and clickings of those insects that had survived the cold weather of early November; and even, with his head now against the ground, the very small, subtle murmurings in the earth itself.

Suddenly there was a fluttering in the air, an uprush of black wings, then hoarse, mournful calling, and a dozen crows flew overhead and away across the field. The Anthean watched them until they were out of sight, and then he smiled. This would be, after all, a fine world…

Newton is perpetually tortured by the implications of his mission. The same technological prowess that allowed him to make the long journey to Earth also powered the weapons that wrought Anthea’s destruction. He fears the scientific knowledge his enterprise will make available to Earth’s governments will hasten humanity’s self-destruction. Like Icarus, whose legend haunts the book, Newton’s fall to earth is ultimately caused by technological hubris.

Tevis also touches on other political themes that have an intriguing relevance for today’s age of privately funded space missions. To what extent will governments allow private citizens, even the most wealthy, to undertake a programme of space exploration as ambitious as that envisaged by Newton?

But the novel’s deepest theme, it seems, is loneliness, most obviously manifested in the figure of Newton: the solitary member of his kind on a strange planet, burdened with an impossible responsibility, unable to share his true identity and increasingly sceptical about the practical and ethical permissibility of his project.

But perhaps we are also invited to see ourselves in Newton. Though an alien in a sense he is Everyman, representative of humanity’s fundamental condition, ultimately a stranger on this or any world, thrown into existence, fallen to some Earth or other. If that is so, then Roeg’s film in this respect at least, with Bowie’s anguished performance, is in sympathy with Tevis’ intentions.