Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis

8.5/10

Thomas Jerome Newton is an alien. He just arrived on Earth, all alone, on a desperate mission to save the last of his dying people. For that, he needs to amass a fortune on Earth to build a spaceship to bring the others over to Earth. To get the money, he sells patents for his alien technology. All he really knows about Earth is what he has seen on television broadcasts.

I can’t help but feel sorry for Newton. He is totally alone, totally alienated from society and on a desperate quest that nobody shares with him. He’s in pain because of the higher gravity, having problems with walking, and with the heat and bright light. He’s full of anxiety over his plans, over the strange planet Earth and over his communication with humans that is just a bit off all the time.

It is interesting to see what Tevis decides to tell and not to tell. He skips over intricate details of Newton’s plans, he skips over long periods of time, only to come back to Newton in his solitary moments where Newton reflects on his separation from his home planet. Between hours of talking and planning, he looks up at the stars, at unfamiliar constellations, and wonders where his planet is and if he ever meets his fellow people again. Things don’t go well for Newton. He gets depressed, discovers the soothing voice of alcohol, and people are on his tail, chasing the origins of all this new technology suddenly entering the market. Things go from bad to worse.

The narrative “makes a pleasure of melancholy”, to use the words of a professor character who likes to get drunk in the morning. There is some kind of psychological sickness that worms its way through the book. We get to see Newton from the eyes of a handful of supporting characters, and all of them drink, copiously. 

Speaking of alcohol, now is the time to bring up the writer, Walter Tevis. As a child, Tevis suffered illness that left him weak, fragile and apart from other kids. After treatment, he moved from San Francisco back to his family in rural Kentucky, and we can see that journey echoed in Newton’s arrival on Earth in the countryside, fragile and alone. Later in life, Tevis became an alcoholic. He became, according to his son, the anti-hero of his own novels. He is the man who fell to Earth. The story of Newton the alien is clearly a thinly veiled psychological study of alienation, depression and alcoholism, drawn from Tevis’ own experiences. Tevis was a bit like Philip K. Dick in that regard, but where Dick focused on the confusion of paranoia and schizophrenia, Tevis drowned in melancholy. 

It’s beautifully written. After the first chapter, I knew this was going to be a good read based on the author’s voice alone. He has a lyrical style, kept under strict control. It is painful too. Newton suffers so much – his loneliness a quiet, insistent aching. Tevis could have abandoned the sci-fi elements completely – for the themes are very literary – but doesn’t. The sci-fi framework works very well for themes of alienation and Tevis takes the genre seriously. He abides by its logic and extrapolations (as opposed to, say, Matt Haig’s The Humans, which is also about an alien stranded on Earth but is a self-help book in disguise with little actual interest in its own SF frame).

This book made me super uncomfortable. I don’t particularly enjoy reading about people abusing themselves with bad coping mechanisms. But I admire the book for being so powerful and, ultimately, moving. Newton is certainly a unique depiction of an alien in SF literature. It’s only a short read, not very expansive, but highly recommended. 

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14 Responses to Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis

  1. Andreas says:

    Tempting! Just after Mockingbird, I wonder about this far earlier work from Tevis. Thanks for your review!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bookstooge says:

    Never understood why books about personal self-destruction were hits with people. I’ve never read anything by Tevis so if I ever feel the urge, I’ll try this one.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Isn’t the refrain “write what you know?” And Tevis certainly knew self-destruction… and as a result there’s a realistic feel to it that hits home.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wakizashi says:

    This is on my list and I will get to it eventually. Glad to hear you enjoyed it and that it’s “beautifully written”.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    Great review, Jeroen!
    I think I’ll pass for now. Not sure I’m in the mood for a chronicle of self-destruction, even if it’s beautifully written… I’ll start with Mockingbird 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. bormgans says:

    This has been on my radar for quiet some time, Mockingbird too. You’ve sold me though, I’ll read this one first…

    Liked by 1 person

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