I know this book is considered a science-fiction classic, and the story is even more famous because of the 1976 film by Nicolas Roeg and starring David Bowie. . . but this is also a really good book, well written, good characters, distinctive settings and a simple but fabulous plot.
Having said that, its not a cheerful, up tempo book, nor is it quite the same as the film if you’re familiar with that version. It’s not full of optimism and hope for the future, nor is it a high octane alien invasion type story, currently so popular, but it is a fabulous and gripping story none-the-less.
So what’s it about?
The story begins in 1985 and revolves around an alien who travels to earth from one of the other planets in our solar system in order to try and save humanity from making the same mistakes his own people made on their own planet. To help avoid an otherwise inevitable atomic conflict that would in the words of the protagonist –
“kill most of your people… poison the fish in your rivers,the squirrels in your trees, the flocks of birds, the soil, the water.”
Or as is subsequently mentioned, from an alien perspective:
“There are times when you seem, to us, like apes loose in a museum, carrying knives, slashing the canvasses, breaking the statuary with hammers.”
How will this alien save the world?
By building a ship to bring the last few hundred of his kind to the earth in order to share their knowledge and more importantly their wisdom. This will also save the last few survivors of the alien’s people, who are now all but trapped on a dying world, whose resources are spent, and despite their great technological achievements, now only have sufficient energy to send a single person across the gulf of space to try and complete this mission.
This then is the setting and the backdrop to the story, and in many books this would be enough for a great book in its own right, but the added element that truly makes this book stand out, is the journey which the alien Thomas Jerome Newton must go on alone. An alien amongst a massive multitude of humanity, unable to contact his home world, disguised to the point where he barely recognises himself, and of course unable to take anyone into his confidence here on earth.
Added to this, Newton is also separated from those around him by his intellect and knowledge, both of which make it difficult for him to think of the people around him as anything other than children.
There are very few books which attempt to portray this outsiders view of the world we all know so well, Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ is probably the most obvious and equally accomplished comparison, but while Heinlein’s Valentine Michael Smith is ultimately a more successful and heroic individual who starts and finishes the book as a more enlightened and transcendent being, Tevis’s Newton is from the start a more flawed and in many ways more human character despite his intellect and knowledge.
This then is the real strength and power of this story, and where Tevis triumphs completely. For not only is the story of Newton’s mission and his attempts to save the planet well told, the psychological struggle of this alien amongst us, including his mis-steps is also revealed in a perfectly credible and believable way.
I feel its also worth mentioning how well this book has aged since the late sixties when it was written. I described in an earlier review of H.G. Well’s ‘Food of the Gods‘ how poorly some aspects of that books plot and style had aged, making the book really quite difficult to enjoy in places. Well, with Tevis’s the Man Who Fell to Earth there are no such considerations. There are numerous places where he could’ve slipped up, new technologies are frequently mentioned, all of which are credible, well explained and relevant to the story, but none of these inventions date the book overly, if anything they just help to conjour the historic setting all the more evocatively.
This is very enjoyable story for when you’re in a more thoughtful mood, when you have the time to sit and let the subtleties of Newton’s position percolate through your mind. There is a very strong allegory with the story of Icarus and his flying too close to the sun, running through this book, which is alluded to quite obviously in some places, and quite subtly in others but is never heavy handed or clumsily done, so could easily be missed if you were to read this book while in the wrong mood.
Purchased from my local Waterstones bookshop for £9.99 (5.99 eBook version)
Other books that you might like if you’ve enjoyed this, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land‘ by Robert Heinlein is probably a good match, as is Dumas’s ‘Count of Monte Cristo‘ or perhaps even Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein‘.
I’ve got a couple of books lined up to read next, but I’ve decided to take a short break from reading Sci-Fi classics to read DBC Pierre’s ‘Release the Bats’. This is described as ‘Part biography, part reflection, part practical guide ‘Release the Bats’ explores the mysteries of why and how we tell stories.
I must admit I’m looking forward to this one immensely, and if the first chapter is anything to go by, it will be an interesting journey.