100 sf

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Part I

"Like morphine it all depended upon proper measurements."

Among the novels I would suggest Pringle’s list mistakenly overlooks is Walter Tevis’ masterpiece from 1963, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis (1928-1984) had a rocky childhood and stint in the Navy behind him when he started seeing steady publication in the 1950s. His first works were pool hall tales, including his first novel The Hustler, which was of course the basis of the 1961 Paul Newman-Jackie Gleason picture. TMWFTE was his second novel and also the source material for a film (and a tv adaptation, as well as a forthcoming Broadway musical and second movie).

The novel centers around the seemingly effete Thomas Jerome Newton, a distant traveler who has been sent to Earth to establish an intergalactic ferry to bring the few remaining inhabitants of his home planet, Anthea, here for resettlement. Anthea was ravaged by radioactive war. Of the three intelligent species that once inhabited the planet, only one remains. And of them, there are only about three hundred survivors. Not only do the Antheans wish to settle on Earth, but they also hope to socially engineer human society away from atomic suicide, such as Anthea suffered.

Newton has a few obstacles in his way. One, he doesn’t surround himself with the soundest company, including his main companion, a rube named Betty Jo who introduces him to gin and who witlessly pines for his foreign physiology.

“She began to feel a touch of wicked excitement in her from flirting at the edge of the idea of that strange, delicate body against hers. Looking at him and letting her imagination play with the thought, she knew that the particular thrill came from his strangeness–his strange, unmanlike, unsexual nature. Maybe she was like those women who like to make love with freaks and cripples. Well, he was both–and she did not care now, was not ashamed, with the tight pants on and the gin in her. If she could arouse him–if he could be aroused–she would be proud of herself. And if not–he was a dear man anyway and he wouldn’t be offended."

His main source of income is a series of radically advanced patents—self-developing film, powderless toy caps—that raise the suspicion of at least one scientist, as well as the CIA and FBI. And he has a penchant for taking unnecessary chances, like leaving the “lifeboat” spacecraft he arrived in on an open area of a farmer’s field.

But this is perhaps understandable. Newton’s sole interaction with human culture before arriving is the radio and television waves drifting through space. And Tevis nails the otherworldliness of this strange creature. Newton suffers physically and emotionally. He takes on some human traits, while utterly rejecting others. Mostly he’s just vulnerable. He’s left his family and life behind for a dicey gamble at Anthean survival. Physically, he’s like glass. He incessantly pops pills to keep going and nearly breaks his birdlike bones every time he rides in an elevator or fast-moving car. But he can be alternately patronizing and vicious. On living with humans: “Think of living with the monkeys for six years. Or think of living with the insects, of living with the shiny, busy, mindless ants."

The ending? Well, it’s devastating. This isn’t E.T., Mr. Spielberg.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am curious what other books you thought were left off of the list.

Myself, I was suprised by the absense of "The Forever War" and "The Sheep Look Up".

12:18 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Yikes! That’s a tough question. For one, should we even be working within Pringle’s parameters or not? His choices come during a finite time and they’re all works that were originally published in English. This leaves off folks like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne from before 1949, as well as writers like Lem who weren’t working in English. I got into this a little bit

I haven’t read any Brunner (shame! shame!), but I’m totally on board with you about "The Forever War." I also really miss "Rendezvous with Rama" and "Stranger in a Strange Land." I also take a little issue with which Philip K. Dick novels he picks. But since everything by Dick is at least interesting, if not always superbly written, I suppose I can’t complain too much.

In the end, I’m not even sure if I’ve read enough sf novels to really be as critical of Pringle’s list as I'd like. On the other hand, it’s all the fun, isn’t it?

10:09 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Try that link again.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not having Pringle's book, did explian why the list started in 1948? It seems like a failrly random year to me.

If we looked at the stuff after 1984 I would also toss out Robert J Sawyer's "Calculating God" and Robert Charles Wilson's "The Chronolith's" (plus as a Canadian it would be fun to add some more Canuck presence)

11:32 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

(Sorry I didn't get back to this sooner.)

He has a pretty long answer to that question actually. First, he wanted to write about books published in his lifetime and books published after World War II, in order to perhaps measure the impact the war had on the genre and keep the list "up-to-date." Second, he says sf wasn't used as a publishing category until 1948 (van Vogt's "The World of Null-A" is the first time the term "sf" was used on a book cover). And finally, he wanted to use a strong, powerful speculative novel to start the list, and he decided "1984" should be that novel.

5:11 PM  

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