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January's Book
The Man Who Fell to Earth
by Walter Tevis

Bill:
Thomas Jerome Newton—a tragic figure who had come to save the world. But what world? Alien or earthling, it matters not, for in this fantastic science fiction classic by Kentuckian Walter Tevis, it is about us all in our journey into loneliness, despair, and falling to earth. Walter Tevis and The Man Who Fell to Earth. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Well, first of all, I want to say congratulations to our bookclub selection team, who introduces us, or reintroduces us, to Walter Tevis and The Man Who Fell to Earth. I think a lot of his work might be familiar in the modern era from his movies: The Hustler and The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Everyone remember David Bowie? If they saw the movie, they remember him in the movie. But we are not here to do a movie review; we are here to talk about a classic science fiction work by a Kentuckian who taught or went to school at UK. In fact, he taught high school English, and then he went on to Ohio University, where most of his academic career was. But he wrote this—Jonathan, we were talking about his age—in 1963, I think.

Jonathan:
Yeah, I think he was born in 1928; he died at the relatively young age of 56. This was his second novel. I think The Hustler was his first in 1958.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
This was his second novel and received quite good reviews when it was published. A lot of people felt it was a strong, strong science fiction novel, very interesting. He wrote about half a dozen novels, I think, and three of them were made into movies.

Bill:
We talked before the program today about the other novels and about the movies and all of that. There is a lot to talk about, and again, I think this is for people who don’t know his work: This writing sort of revises Walter Tevis in Kentuckians’ minds, at least in this book. What did you think of it?

Wilma:
I liked it.

Gabrielle:
Yeah. I’m not a science fiction reader, so I was thinking, OK ... But it had a very human kind of thread that was woven throughout it, and you really start looking at humanity as a whole as opposed to another planet. So I really enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to people that are kind of fearful of checking out science fiction. This would be the way to go to start to be introduced to it.

Dava:
I will have to agree with that. I don’t read science fiction either, but I mean this book wasn’t really about Newton being an extraterrestrial. It was more of his observations of Earth and what we are as a people and what humans are, and it was kind of eye-opening in that respect.

Jonathan:
Yeah, well, I think some science fiction novels deal with fictional other planets, and you have to learn a whole new vocabulary—you know, words that they use to describe their world, and so on and so forth. But this is very much an easy read as a science fiction novel because it’s set on Earth and it’s about human Earth. It’s also, I think, about loneliness, isn’t it? Because he is a very isolated figure and a very lonely figure. In the end, he “goes native,” as they say, and becomes accustomed to Earth and becomes very human in many ways. It’s really very good, I think, in describing his feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are things that we can identify with. And I think some of the reviewers when it first came out said that he’s a brilliant fictional creation because although he’s extraterrestrial, he’s very human, and we can sympathize with and identify with him.

Dava:
And all the people he knows—well, he only has two people on Earth he considers his friends. They are very lonely people likewise, and so it’s just riddled with drunkenness and despair.

Bill:
Despair.

Dava:
Yeah.

Bill:
Yeah. We said it at the same time.

Dava:
Right.

Wilma:
Another thing I thought was interesting, too: He said he had watched Earth television on his own planet, and he said, you seem to think, when you depict aliens from another planet, that they are all alike; that they all speak the same language; they all have the same ideas and the same government. And he indicated, you know, we are as diverse as Earth would be. So we are not all alike. I picked up one quote ... I don’t know why I am getting into this right now.

Bill:
Go right ahead.

Wilma:
Might as well, since I’m talking. I also thought this was interesting. It was published in 1963, and we had mentioned before that there must have been revisions, but I think this is from 1963. And he talks about how television depicted people, and at that time, in ’63, television was for all practical purposes about 15 years old. And so I was interested in seeing that it hadn’t changed much. And he’s talking about living with Betty Jo. She shows him the seedier side or the more common side of life. He said:

“In a few weeks of living with this woman he had learned a great deal about one aspect of American society that television had not informed him of at all. He had known about the general prosperity that had bloomed continuously, like the flower of some giant and impossibly hardy weed, for the 40 years since the end of World War II, and he had known how this wealth had been distributed among and spent by the nearly all-inclusive middle class that, as every year passed, put more time into less productive work and made more money for it. It was that over-dressed and immensely comfortable middle class that almost all television shows dealt with, so that one could easily get the notion that all Americans are young, suntanned, clear-eyed, and ambitious.”

And that hasn’t changed much in all these years.

Bill:
No. No, it hasn’t. Now let’s go back and we’ll fill in the blanks as we go—and there is a lot to talk about here, so we’ll all talk fast. Somebody start out; just give us a sort of a general overview of the story: where he was from and what he was here for and all of that. Just start, and we’ll all kind of jump in there. Jonathan?

Jonathan:
Well, he is from the planet Anthea, wherever that is. And we are not told where it is.

Wilma:
It is part of our solar system.

Jonathan:
OK.

[Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
That narrows it down a little. His people are apparently much more advanced technologically in many ways than human beings, and they have developed enormous numbers of weapons of mass destruction.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
They had several nuclear wars. Their planet was devastated by nuclear apocalypse; there were only 300 survivors left. He is one of them. He was sent on a mission to find a better habitat for his people. And it’s kind of interesting for me to grasp, because I just read last week that Stephen Hawking, the author of that [Brief] History of Time, said that it may come to pass that human beings will have to find another planet ...

Bill:
Hmmm ...

Jonathan:
... you know, so I guess scientists and science fiction writers think along the same lines sometimes. At any rate, so he comes here, and he disguises himself as a human being, and he becomes a millionaire by developing new ways of developing photographs and so on.

Bill:
He amasses this great wealth for the purpose of what? Somebody?

Gabrielle:
A spaceship to transport his people back to Earth. And I think not only was it to help his people, so to speak, from his planet, but also to help the Americans or the world, the Earth, to survive and correct the wrongs before they happen. He often talked about the environment and how we’re polluting the waters, and he predicted that the squirrels would be dead; there wouldn’t be any squirrels or fish alive. So he came, also, to, I think, save the Earth in a sense.

Wilma:
But I think he wanted to save the Earth, make the Earth a good place for the Antheans to come to. I’m not sure that he actually wanted to save Earth as much as to make this the environment where his people would feel comfortable—and of course that’s the devastating thing. He decides that this is not a world that they could ever be comfortable in because we can’t learn. He says it’s as if we were talking to apes. It’s just so different; the leap is so big that we can’t understand how to make it a better world.

Jonathan:
Yeah, yeah.

Bill:
So in some sense, hearing somebody sort of retell the story, it can be a very simple story of an alien who comes to Earth to save both Earthlings and maybe his countrymen, too; but then Walter Tevis does such a good job of going into, in dialogue, the people he meets—this depiction of Earth as we are, and as we were then, and as we are today in many respects. Somebody spoke of the relevancy of what we were going through even today and how it speaks to some of the things that Tevis wrote about way back in 1963.

Wilma:
But he talks about the destruction coming from the air. But I don’t think that necessarily ... I think that’s after the airplane was invented. I think that’s probably true. Anyway, he says:

“And, still looking at the leg and arm of the sky-fallen boy”—this is when Brice is looking at the picture of Icarus that he has in his home]—“in the ocean in the serene picture on the wall, he thought, ‘Friend or foe?’” (because he is trying to contemplate whether Newton actually is from another planet or not).

“He kept staring at the picture. Destroyer or preserver? Newton’s words were in his head. ‘It may be the second coming indeed.’”—is what Newton said. “But Icarus had failed, had burned and drowned, while Daedalus, who had not gone so high, had escaped from his lonely island. Not to save the world, however. Maybe even to destroy it, for he had invented flight; and destruction, when it came, would come from the air. Brightness falls from the air, he thought; I grow sick; I must die; Lord have mercy on us.”

So I think after the airplane was invented—whenever it was, and he may well be thinking about World War II here, for example—I think the idea is that it does come from the air, because it gives you such an advantage if you can fly over people and drop things on them no matter what.

Jonathan:
Yeah, I agree with you. I think it’s a product of its time. I mean, it was published in 1963, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Jonathan:
I think it’s filled with Cold War anxieties.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
The anxieties that gripped the whole world in the very early ’60s, when people were concerned about nuclear build-up, about the arms race, and about the Soviet threat. I think it’s really very much a novel about our anxieties at the time. And certainly he’s a man coming from the future to warn us about what may happen and, in his view, what will happen. And they say that we always ignore our own prophets and blind our prophets. In this case, he is ignored and incarcerated.

Bill:
So we know from the end of the novel that, of course, he fails. Did he fail at prophesying, or did he fail in garnering enough audience or a large enough group of people to talk about [things]—because you said a few minutes ago that he really only befriended two or three people. Let’s talk about some of those other characters. I think you called Betty Jo seedy a minute ago.

Wilma:
Did I call her seedy?

Bill:
You did.

Wilma:
I’m sorry.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.

Bill:
But talk about Betty Jo. Talk about Nathan Brice, the professor, and how he kind of gets involved, because these really are the secondary but major characters along with the protagonist, Newton.

Wilma:
It did interest me ... I’m not answering your question; I understand that. But it interests me ...

Bill:
You are not going to own up to the seediness, are you?

Wilma:
No, not at all.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
It interested me at the end that Betty Jo and Brice got together. I didn’t like that because it was like, “Oh, let’s wrap it all up,” and it didn’t make good sense that they would get together.

Jonathan:
Didn’t work, yeah.

Wilma:
And then Newton writes them a check for a million dollars. I thought that was very strange at the end. In fact, I liked the book, but if I had to point out weaknesses, I don’t like the ending. I liked the ending as far as Newton is concerned—I think that is just fine ...

Bill:
Really?

Wilma:
But the business about making Betty Jo—not Mary Jo; Betty Jo ... Of course, I’m not the romantic here ...

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
... making that Betty Jo and Brice get together, and just ... I thought, No, I don’t think so.

Bill:
Just one quick comment here about the million dollars. Again, he got that from television. He got that from the man who used to go on television when we were watching TV back in the ’60s ...

Wilma:
You and I. I remember it quite well.

Bill:
... and the millionaire show. And for you youngsters here, it was about a man, as he says in the novel, that used to write people checks for a million dollars and then sort of follow their life, and it was a great, very successful TV show. So in that way it sort of makes sense for me now.

Wilma:
Sort of. It’s just that he is sitting in the bar, and he is saying something like, what can I do for you, or—I don’t even remember what—and he said, “Well, you can write me a check for a million dollars.”

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
Sort of off-handed, yeah.

Wilma:
So he just does.

Dava:
He doesn’t care.

Wilma:
You mean Newton?

Dava:
Newton doesn’t care.

Bill:
Right.

Dava:
He is discouraged ...

Bill:
He’s given up.

Dava:
... that he is never going to go back home. He is never going to see the people from back home. All he can do is sit around and be drunk and talk to Albert the bartender. And so what does it matter if he takes one of his millions and just throws it at somebody?

Wilma:
Oh, I understand why Newton did it. He doesn’t care about the money. But Brice—I didn’t see anything in his character throughout the novel that would make him go, at the end ...

Dava:
Oh yeah, Brice said, “Yeah, write me a check.”

Jonathan:
It’s kind of an almost unethical thing to do. You know, he is exploiting the situation.

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
And we weren’t prepared for that, I think.

Bill:
What about the ethics of taking the secret photograph, though? I mean, that wasn’t really aboveboard, I don’t think.

Jonathan:
I think that was OK because he wanted to establish whether he was an alien or not.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And I think that this is different. This is pretty important news: whether the man was from another planet or not.

Bill:
I thought it was pretty important the way he did it, though. I mean, I thought you got a real inside look at Brice’s character from just that surreptitious way that he went and really secretively ...

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
It was on a par with what the FBI did when they bugged his hotel room.

Dava:
Right.

Jonathan:
I mean, there was a certain amount of espionage involved here. We were told that for three years they had been following Newton and rummaging through his private papers. The FBI had been on his tail for some time.

Wilma:
And they had to know that he was an alien.

Jonathan:
So there had been a lot of surveillance here—which is, of course, an issue today.

Bill:
Yeah, exactly.

Jonathan:
It’s excused as protecting national security.

Bill:
Exactly; yeah. Found out that he was an American citizen. “I’m an American citizen.” “Oh, no, you are not. We think you’ve doctored your birth certificate” and all of that.

Jonathan:
That’s right; that’s right. That’s interesting.

Bill:
All of that was very interesting.

Jonathan:
But I think that just the crassness of saying, give me a million dollars. It just wasn’t him.

Wilma:
That’s what I think.

Jonathan:
But I did like the final scene where he was talking to a Greenwich Village bar man, and he said ...

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
And the Greenwich Village barman, he’s heard it all.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And ...

Wilma:
Right.

Jonathan:
... this old guy is saying, “You know, I came from another planet. I came to save you all.” And the barman said, “Yeah.”

[Everyone talks at once and laughs]

Jonathan:
I thought that was very good.

Wilma:
I liked that. I thought that was good, too. And I liked that because ...

Jonathan:
He says, “You better hurry up then, because we are in a bad way.”

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
And then at the end ...

Bill:
Easy come, easy go.

Wilma:
The barman actually had maybe the last word. He said, “You know, I think that man needs help” ...

Bill:
Yes.

Wilma:
... talking about Newton. And then, of course, Brice. Brice says, “Yes, yes, I guess he does.” I was thinking he thought it, but Brice has the last word. But the bartender had the last thought about him: “I think he needs help.” And I liked that ending. I thought it was a good ending.

Jonathan:
I liked it, too, and I think it registered the fact that he had become, you know, fully human, or as fully human as he would become. The final image was him—a complete image of pathos—leaning against a bar, an old drunk crying into his gin, you know.

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
And that was the first time he had really expressed grief, I think, and a sense of despair.

Dava:
Well, I think the whole reason his mission failed is because he did not know what humans were to begin with. He only had these ...

Wilma:
... television images.

Dava:
Yeah, he was saying ... You know, at the end he becomes human, and it’s pathetic; and I think this book has a lot to say about just how pathetic humans are. But he failed because he just had the TV image of the ambitious, clear-eyed, sun-tanned middle class. And you know, when he comes ... He even spends a great deal of time thinking about and judging just from Betty Jo, who was on the dole. She would go get her five checks every month or whatever. And he was saying, you know, he didn’t realize there were so many people who were just ignorantly blissful and didn’t care. And there is no way he could have saved humans because they didn’t care enough to even have the foresight to see what would happen, you know, if they keep trashing the environment, if they use nuclear weapons, [keep] exploiting the resources, that sort of deal. I think that’s the saddest part of the book.

Wilma:
Do you think this is a despairing book?

Dava:
Yes.

Bill:
Oh yes.

Gabrielle:
Toward the end, yes.

Bill:
Yeah, yeah. Along that same line, one of the reviewers said that in the end Newton wasn’t crushed by the military or by the government, but by Earth culture.

Wilma:
Yeah.

Bill:
All of the social disease that confounded his life.

Wilma:
Because the CIA and the FBI took him in and examined him. They knew what he was, but they did not destroy him. They could have killed him or whatever, made him disappear in some way, but they didn’t; they just let him back out. Actually, I just thought of a thought right in the middle of my speaking. That’s a good point: that they realized he was not a threat because no one would follow him and no one would believe him.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
And so they just let him go, because they realized that his type of thinking wasn’t going to work or wasn’t going to affect the Earth anyway.

Dava:
Yeah, and even the director of the CIA said, “We don’t want to be known as the biggest administrational crackpots ever.”

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
You know: We can’t go out saying we have an alien, so just get out of here.

Bill:
Well, let me put in a shameless plug for our web site, our bookclub web site at KET. It’s easy to find, and the wonderful people who work very hard at putting this together ... But this is a web site for this book not to be missed. It’s a wealth of information on Walter Tevis, the author; some nice, very wonderfully literary explanations of this book; plus a lot of other work of Walter Tevis. And you can hear an interview with him that was conducted in ’83 or ’84—maybe the very year that he died, which is sort of eerie in the way you are hearing his voice—but he was, he was so strong and forthright and honest about his whole life, about his upbringing in Kentucky. And of course there are a lot of references to Kentucky here.

Wilma:
I like that.

Bill:
Oh, I did, too. And I think one of the key things at the very end was this: At the bar where maybe he and ... Oh, no, this is in the hotel room where Brice and Newton are discussing and he’s revealed for the first time that he is an alien. And Brice says, “Well, why don’t you just bring your people here and establish a colony?” And [there’s a] great honest answer: “Well, we would be sort of an oddity; we would be a cult or a sect.” I don’t know if those were his words, but instead of blending into the rest of society.

So do look at the web site. There is a lot of really good information. And Jonathan, you also wanted to talk about, and we all were sort of interested in, the revisions. There’s a lot on the web site about some of that, and some problems that I think we all have if we are aware of those, about the way that the publisher has sort of taken some license. But we don’t know that for sure, and that’s what’s interesting.

Jonathan:
Well, the thing is, when you buy a book or buy a novel and you are reading it, you trust that you are reading ... the words on the page you are reading are the words that the author wrote. And there are always problems when an author may have made revisions to his or her work and then maybe you will be reading an earlier edition and then maybe he made revisions in the later edition, and so that’s extra information that you need. I think in this case there is a very funny and useful and believable reference to the Watergate scandal ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... when the guy in the CIA is talking about how we spy on the other party. They said, “Did you know that Watergate changed nothing—nothing ...” Because this is set in the future, in 1988, so, therefore, although this is written in 1963. Sometime after 1972 ...

Wilma:
’72.

Jonathan:
... Tevis or someone put this in.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And, unfortunately, Del Rey, the publishers, have not told us—as would be appropriate to do, and as many publishers do to this sort of thing. They have not told us in a note on the text when the changes were made and who made the changes, who authorized the changes, because we don’t know if Tevis made the changes or what.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
They were made unbeknownst to him.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
They may have been made after his death. They may have been made during his lifetime but without telling him. And furthermore, we don’t know what other changes were made. I mean, if this was one change, then what else has been changed?

Bill:
Exactly.

Jonathan:
So it’s a kind of an unstable text you are looking at. But I ... I think we just have to get an earlier edition and look at that. But I think the publisher should really have published a little paragraph somewhere explaining what those revisions were.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
Especially in a futuristic novel, because until I got to the Watergate part and went, “Whoops, you know that was later than ’63,” I was enjoying thinking about what Walter Tevis was either projecting from 1963 into the future and what he missed and what he got right, and I thought that was one of the fascinating things. And I think it is in a futuristic novel that you go back and read ...

Bill:
Exactly.

Wilma:
And now I don’t know how much of it was his original ...

Jonathan:
Yes.

Wilma:
... work or not, and I don’t know how impressed I should be with his work.

Jonathan:
Well, it’s a bit like reading George Orwell’s 1984 ...

Wilma:
Yes, yeah. In 1985.

Jonathan:
... then learning that there were changes made in the 1970s.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
Someone has done some work on this, and it’s on the web site. Now this person is just a reader, but she had bought an original hardbound copy ...

Wilma:
Good.

Bill:
... and then looked at this and found quite a few mistakes. I tell you what: We will do some investigative reporting on this, and Jonathan, maybe you and I can work together on this and find out if Tevis was responsible for ...

Jonathan:
Sure.

Bill:
... OKing the changes.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Bill:
There is also one other thing. I think I am correct about this. But there are the chapters entitled “1985,” and I think originally it might have been 1980. So the publisher or someone upped the years there to ’85. And there is also a reference to 1990.

Wilma:
Well, why would they do that?

Bill:
Well that’s just it. You see the original ...

Wilma:
It’s OK to make reference to ’85 and ’90, because that’s when he has the novel set. But why would they change it five years—the publisher or whatever?

Bill:
I ... I ...

Wilma:
But you think originally the date was 1980?

Bill:
If I understand ...

Wilma:
Not 1985?

Bill:
If I understand from the research that is on our web site. And also the chapter titles; there are some problems there with one being called ... Let’s see: The first is “1985: Icarus.”

Everyone:
Icarus, uh huh.

Bill:
Then “Rumpelstiltskin” is in the later. I don’t know if they were in the original as far as chapter or section.

Wilma:
Sections; yeah, these were sections.

Bill:
So you see there are some ...

Wilma:
Oh.

Jonathan:
The reference to Icarus ...

Bill:
Descending.

Jonathan:
... is appropriate, however, because ...

Wilma:
Sure.

Jonathan:
... the famous painting by the Dutch painter of the 17th century, Brueghel, The Fall of Icarus ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
It’s referred to several times, and it’s obviously a kind of image of what this man is. In a sense, it shows how the novel is rooted in an ancient mythology, the mythology of Greek mythology. The man falls ...

Wilma:
Icarus himself was reaching for too much.

Jonathan:
Yes.

Wilma:
You know, he was reaching too much. He was reaching too high, because his father, Daedalus, escaped the island by constructing wings and putting the feathers together with wax. Daedalus made it because ... He made it from the island and successfully reached the mainland. But Icarus rose too high. He was trying to be a god. So I think that’s important, too. Maybe Newton was reaching too high, or maybe we are reaching too high. I’m not sure which one it could be. But I think it’s a really good image, don’t you?

Jonathan:
Yeah, an image of pride and hubris and the idea of inventing something that you cannot control.

Wilma:
Uh huh; yes.

Jonathan:
This also has a bearing on the question of weapons of mass destruction, which is what the novel’s about, too.

Dava:
Well, it was very ironic that many of the patents he had made for the World Enterprises Corporation or whatever were being used in government weaponry research.

Wilma:
Right.

Bill:
Uh huh. Let me read this short paragraph from a piece that is, again, on the web site, from one of his students who went back and interviewed him just before his death and some references in an interview the last time that she talked with him at Ohio University. She writes, “Tevis made one of those statements that register for various personal reasons so profoundly that one cannot even stop to write them down. ‘We write about,’ he said, moving his left hand, the one that was not holding a cigarette, up to the cap of his hair, ‘We write about the things that will not let us alone.’”

 

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