Thursday, February 04, 2016

the last book I read

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis.

A man walks into a remote Kentucky town. Not your typical Kentucky town-dweller: tall, pale, skinny. His name is Thomas Jerome Newton, and he's from another planet.

Having made a few exploratory trips into town from the site where his spaceship crash-landed to sell various items of precious metal jewellery, partly to raise some initial cash and partly to verify that he can interact with humans without being detected, Newton moves on to more ambitious pursuits, like building up a multi-million-dollar business empire off the back of various patents for technological wonders, knowledge of which he has brought with him from his home planet.

It's difficult to start and maintain such a business without becoming publicly-known, though, still less without having to trust other people to do some of the work for you. Among the people Newton chooses to trust are borderline-alcoholic housekeeper Betty-Jo and physicist Nathan Bryce. He needs Bryce's help for his Big Secret Project, which turns out to be building a spaceship - this spaceship will return to Newton's home planet Anthea (supposedly in our own solar system, though Newton is cagey about exactly where; it pretty much has to be Mars, though) which has been ravaged by war and drought, and bring back a small number of surviving Antheans to live on Earth, co-exist with humans and, through their prior experience and superior technology, save the human race from annihilating itself and rendering its planet a wasteland.

Obviously it would be unwise just to blurt all this out and expect people to go: yup, OK then, here, let me help you with that Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator. So Newton maintains the pretence of being an eccentric, though human, businessman by continuing to wear the fake nipples and contact lenses that disguise his true form. Eventually Bryce starts to smell a rat and rigs up an X-ray machine to capture an image of Newton, weird alien internal structure and all, without his knowledge; eventually Newton is forced to confide in Bryce that yes, he's from another planet, but we come in peace and just want to help you avoid blowing yourselves up. None of that nice planet, we'll take it stuff, good lord no.

Inevitably, though, the authorities get wind of what's going on and take a more paranoid view of the whole situation. So they spirit Newton away to an undisclosed location and get down to some serious probing. Having failed either to conclusively establish that he's from another planet, or get him to confess his plans for world domination, they're obliged to let him go, but not until they've done a couple of last-minute tests on him. Unfortunately one of these tests involves shining high-power X-rays into his eyes, blinding him.

So Newton's plans for sending a ship to Anthea are thwarted. When Bryce finds him again, supping gin in a bar in New York, some sort of political crisis is happening which makes Newton's help more vital than ever. But why would Newton - blind, alcoholic, and with no hope of ever seeing anyone from his home planet again, now that the planetary alignment has shifted - want to bother helping?

The Man Who Fell To Earth (first published in 1963) is most famous for the 1976 film based on it starring David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton - Bowie's first major film role and probably still his most successful one, playing some drug-addled emaciated weirdo not being that much of a stretch for mid-70s Bowie. I must confess I haven't actually seen the film, but the book is a tight, fairly short and highly entertaining and provoking read. As always it's about things other than nipple-less aliens building space rockets: more general alienation, loneliness, alcoholism, the impossibility of ever really knowing anyone else, that sort of thing. It's suggested that it may be at least partly autobiographical, and the struggles with alcoholism certainly echo Tevis's own.

There are echoes of other science fiction here: the thing of a representative of a tired, weakened, enervated civilisation on its last legs but still technologically in advance of our own looking for a new start on our green and fertile planet has been done a few times elsewhere. There are also a few echoes of Algis Budrys' Who?, not least in the general Cold War paranoia, but also in the central character's being a figure of suspicion to the authorities, not conclusively enough that they can pin anything on him, but just enough for them to never be able to leave him alone.

The other Tevis in this list, The Queen's Gambit, is probably better, but this is also very good, in its understated way. My edition (featuring a picture of David Bowie from the film) is a Sight & Sound special edition that I assume was originally given away with a copy of the magazine.

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