On Thursday, October 17th, the Classics of Science Fiction Book Club met and discussed Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, a brilliant eccentric who introduces the entire world to fantastic technologies and a select few to a mind-expanding reality about our own solar system and humanity’s position in the cosmos. Perhaps best known for his first two works of fiction that were turned into movies, The Hustler and The Color of Money, Tevis also wrote a few works of science fiction/speculative fiction including Mockingbird and The Steps of the Sun (check out more about Tevis’ work on his website). The Man Who Fell to Earth was also optioned into a film in 1976 staring David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton. Oddly enough, as one attendee at our discussion commented, Bowie actually looks more alien than the description of T.J. Newton provided by Tevis. (Seriously though, Bowie is amazingly beautiful in his oddity, especially circa 1976. If you haven’t listened to Hunky Dory lately/ever I encourage you to give it a spin).
One particularly fruitful topic of conversation during our discussion last week was about the authentic feel of the central cast of characters–T.J. Newton, Nathan Bryce (one of Newton’s chosen chemical engineers and closest “friend”) and Betty Jo (Newton’s assistant and care-taker of sorts). We generally agreed that none of the characters were exclusively sympathetic, but it wasn’t due to a lack of characterization but rather the opposite. Nathan Bryce and Betty Jo, being human, were compelling because they were relatively easy to relate to, both in their good and not-so-good qualities. Newton, on the other hand, was a bit more elusive. At first he seems to be nothing but gentle to all those around him and his motivations seem clear–get money to save his species. However, once you pause and recognize that his persona was meticulously fabricated for the purpose of infiltrating humanity and establishing a framework into which the remaining members of his species could come to Earth and function within the highest echelon of social and political control, his friendly exterior becomes a bit suspect if not downright mortifying.
We also discussed at length the ways in which Tevis shows humanity dealing with fantastic technological advancements and wonders. Tevis is arguably reflecting a prevailing sentiment of post-World War II America, as most of Newton’s unbelievable inventions were treated with reckless abandon. There was not only the explicit depiction of his inventions being accepted at face value (as evidenced by a store clerk who talks about self-developing color film as casually as if it were a rock he found on the ground) but also the implication that Nathan Bryce was one of few if not the only person who was interested not just in T.J. Newton the man but also in how exactly he produced his technological wonders. I think Tevis exposes and pokes at something very interesting by showing little more than a casual yawn in response to technological wonderment–though I’m not sure if it’s a sense of entitlement, laziness, blind ignorance, idiocy, excitement, immaturity, something else, or a little bit of all.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is very short but very dense and strikes a particular chord with a 21st century audience. Perhaps particularly for those of us living in over-developed countries, but also throughout the rest of the world, as new technologies of increased complexity and, for many (or all, depending on the tech), mystery are introduced constantly and embraced as quickly. Whether or not Tevis intended to write a “cautionary tale” I think that Newton’s story is one. In the ongoing spirit of our club I wouldn’t file this book under cheery, but I would identify it as one that shares, explores, and masterfully depicts some of the ways in which technology becomes intertwined with our society and, potentially, our very nature of being–for better and for worse.
Join us on Thursday, November 19th at 7pm for a discussion of Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton.