The Man Who Fell to Earth is a very simple and sad story about an alien living on Earth. It’s dramatic and thoughtful (no lightsabers here, my friends) so its a good starting point for people who want to dip a toe into the serious end of the science fiction pool.
Read the spoiler free version of this review on goodreads.
The story opens quietly, but effectively. Novels don’t need a huge, flashy opening to keep us engaged: In chapter one, Thomas Newton is frightened and alone. He wants to sell an old ring his wife gave him. Naaaw! But wait! There’s more to Newton; he’s a liar – he has hundreds of rings. But that’s not his biggest secret: He’s an alien, here for a purpose which may or may not be malicious. Thomas Newton isn’t his real name, of course, but this is the only name we’re given. This character is shrouded in mystery, yet he’s polite and kind to all he meets. It’s a perfect set-up to an engaging character.
Loneliness. We’ve all felt it and this book absolutely nails it. As our gentle protagonist is slowly stripped of his identity, he succumbs to alcoholism. In fact, there isn’t a character in this book that doesn’t drink. (Ironically, my first thought after finishing this book was ‘God, I need a drink!’) Effective? Yep. Anyone who has felt lonely, anxious, or depressed will relate to this character. There’s little levity, so it should appeal to lovers of tragedy and the ‘sad is deep’ crowd, or to those who prefer introspection over action. On the other hand, depending on the reader, it can be read as dreary and pretentious. I’d say it’s downright depressing! Certainly not for everyone. But it’s the emotions that make me love this book, something I feel the movie adaptation lacked. I don’t recommend the film – or, at least, I recommend reading the book first.
Money and capitalism is a big theme also. It takes ‘the system’ to task, while carefully acknowledging a universal truth: Without a purpose, money is worthless. By extension, a life without purpose is also worthless. Newton spends the entire novel building riches to fund a project that will save his species – but once the project collapses, all he has is money. A lot of money! He gives away one million dollars to Nathan Bryce – the only character who was aware of his plan, and arguably his only friend. But this gesture isn’t done out of friendship. It’s done because Newton has nothing to do with the money and has no desire to keep it, emphasising how worthless it is. Bryce, suddenly rich, doesn’t know what to do with it. He was only indulging Newton, and Newton is just “glad [he] could do something with the money.” The gesture is so cold and devoid of emotion, it’s brilliantly horrible.
Ever heard of a book hangover? Well, The Man Who Fell to Earth gave me post-book depression. Its ending is simple, but powerful. There’s no death, except the death of a mission, a huge failure that there’s no coming back from, and what makes it so tragic is that no one knows what a great loss has occurred – which is brutally punctuated by a bartender saying “I’m afraid that fellow needs help.” It infuses me with indignant passion every time I think about it.