Category Archives: Walter Tevis

Reading With Authors #1: The Man Who Fell To Earth – Walter Tevis; With Belinda Bauer

Welcome to the first ‘Reading With Authors 2011’ I have popped the kettle on, there’s a mountain of biscuits for everyone to help themselves too, now all we need is out guest co-host for todays events. Oh hang on, I think she’s at the door, there goes the doorbell.

  

Firstly Belinda, though do make yourself comfy on the sofa with that cup of tea, I want to say thank you so much for choosing this book and making me read it. I have to admit the fact that I don’t tend to gravitate towards sci-fi, I don’t think I would have read this – especially with ‘aliens’ being highly present. I am so glad that I did. What made you choose this book for our little book club?

Hi Simon, lovely tea and biscuits! I chose The Man Who Fell To Earth because I loved the film directed by Nic Roeg, which I first saw in about 1980. I really like sci-fi, but particularly the earth-bound near-future kind, so this fitted the bill. Actually I’ve been meaning to read the book for ages, so thanks for the opportunity!

So I guess the first thing we have to say is did you like it, I think it’s rather obvious that I clearly did, what were your thoughts after the final page?

Well I did like it, but ultimately I was left feeling slightly disappointed. I felt that Nic Roeg had captured everything that was amazing about the book, and left out everything that was weak about it, which to me makes the film the better representation of the story. I’d be interested to know how you felt as you finished the book. Also whether there were aspects of it that irritated you or did not ring true…

Well, looking back on it there were several aspects of the book that didn’t quite ring true with me. I mean, the whole alien humanoid coming to earth for one, I don’t really believe in aliens. However what amazed me was how Tevis made me believe. I honestly could imagine there were possibly these humanoid’s walking amongst us and the spell never broke for me. I was thinking about this book all the time. Initially I have to say that I wasn’t sure I was going to like Thomas Jerome Newton, the humanoid of the title, very much. I couldn’t work out his intentions, especially in the way he cashed in on the technology that he had. I felt I couldn’t trust his motives initially, did you feel the same?

I tried not to think about the film as I read the book, so that I would come to it fresh, and I agree that Tevis builds quite a nice bit of tension in his depiction of Newton. I definitely felt as though his extreme frailty might be a red herring and that he would suddenly turn out to be some kind of superman/demon. But I like the fact that that did not happen.

This of course completely changed. I don’t think I have ever read a book which seems to capture an utter loneliness and the sense of being, by all appearances, part of society and yet is a complete outsider. It really pulled at my heart strings and was truly, erm, alienating (forgive the pun). I did wonder if this was a device that Tevis had used on purpose, it evokes sympathy don’t you think?

I totally agree. I feel that it’s the book’s greatest strength – this sense of the sheer heartbreaking REALITY of this alien far from home, missing his family, on a doomed mission. It’s so at odds with most depictions of alien life, and I think that’s why the book still has a following now. It definitely evokes sympathy, because I found I was very quickly on Newton’s side, and rooting for him to succeed.

There were genuinely so many things I loved about this book, one had to be the unrequited love between Betty Jo (who I adored) and Thomas, it just seemed so touching and also we all know about being in love with someone who doesn’t love us back don’t we? Did you think Thomas took advantage of Betty Jo’s feelings or did you think he simply didn’t understand it?

I like to think he simply didn’t understand it, because he treats her a bit like a pet. Or possibly that he was being faithful to his wife, even though there was a good chance that she could be dead. Mind you, I think it’s quite interesting that Tevis paints Betty Jo as a rather blowsy drunk…

I think that’s why I loved her…

…rather than someone a hero would conventionally fall in love with. Do you think her feelings would have been reciprocated if she had been a beautiful young virgin, or a drop-dead gorgeous siren? Maybe Betty Jo –who is indeed a marvellous creation as an alien mouthpiece – is more a symptom of the way women were viewed in the late 50s/early 60s when Tevis wrote the book? A reader of the time might understand exactly why Newton does not reciprocate!

I have to admit that I did get very upset; I am wondering if you can guess where this was…

Well I was obviously devastated by the disastrous experiment performed on Newton at the end of the book, which is just so cruel and ignorant. But both in the book and in the film, my most uncomfortable moments were watching Newton descend into alcoholism and lose focus on his mission. I think it is a gut-wrenching depiction of the slow slide into addiction. How about you?

I have to admit, his first dealings and introduction to alcohol I found quite comic. I wondered if Tevis was making a point by making what was initially comic spiral out of control in such a dark way. Weirdly though this book is never melodramatic is it? I found the prose was quite to the point, I am not saying it wasn’t wonderfully written as it was, but there is a certain distance and coldness which forces the reader to put emotions into the actions towards Thomas and in a way how alien his outlook on the world is. Did you find this the case?

Yes, I think Tevis has the perfect prose style for this book. There is certainly a sense of alienation and distance, which is a wonderful mirror of his protagonist. I’d be interested to know whether it was deliberate on his part, or whether this was simply his usual style and the story played to his strength.

The book was first published in 1963; did you think it has aged well over time?

I think the basic story is still very resonant now because it concentrates on very human emotions and vulnerability. However, the detail in the book is what makes it feel outdated. What the film did which the book does not, is carefully avoid any direct reference to exactly what these amazing technologies are that Newton has brought to Earth with him. That means that the film stands the test of time better than the book, which seems set very squarely in the 60s, or even in the 50s in that Cold War paranoia that prevailed about aliens and flying saucers. Some of the technologies described, like the little steel balls for playing music, have a certain prescience about them but much of Newton’s empire was built on rapid development of 35mm photographic film, which of course now seems almost laughably quaint. This is always the danger with reading classic sci-fi, I realize, but it does interrupt the flow of the narrative, and interfere with the suspension of disbelief. I guess that sci-fi writers hope that if their ideas become dated, it will be because they are so close to what really comes to pass.

The whole way through I felt that all the nuclear wars and the carnage that Thomas leaves behind on Anthea (what a name for a planet, it made me think of Anthea Turner) was a warning to what could happen on earth as technology evolves. Would you agree that Tevis was making his position clear on his concerns for the future of the world?

Yes, I think that can hardly be in doubt. Newton indicates as much to Bryce. In this respect, Tevis was certainly shrewd, if not visionary. Even the extent of the terrible drought which is killing Newton’s planet seems like a precursor of climate change. I believe Tevis taught English at a university in Athens, Ohio, so I guess that had some bearing on the name he chose for the planet!

Would you read another of Tevis’s novels?

I would, would you? I like his cool, succinct style and I’m quite intrigued that he wrote The Hustler, which is about bar-room pool players and was also filmed. But his book Mockingbird sounds great – a future where robots rule over illiterate, drug addicted people. I think I’ve lived there… Thanks for the inspired idea Simon (not to mention the McVities digestives!). I’m embarrassed to say that this is the only novel I’ve read in the past two years because I’ve been so busy writing. It was really good to read something that wasn’t about crime and death! I hope your readers enjoy the rest of your series of chats.

No thank you Belinda, it was so nice of you to pop by. I am also thrilled you chose this book; I honestly wouldn’t have read it and now am keen to read much more, the robots ruling book sounds good… I’m not so sure about the bar-room pool players I have to say. Right let’s see what the other readers have to say… come one everyone have a seat, grab a biscuit and tell us what you thought.

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Filed under Belinda Bauer, Book Thoughts, Reading With Authors 2011, Walter Tevis