Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Man Who Fell to Earth

I have always loved science fiction, but for some reason I never read this classic by Walter Tevis.  Many sci-fi writers are trained scientists or science geeks who build stories around speculative science.  Some do it well, some not so well.  Others are fantasy writers who abuse science to fit their fantasies.  Some of these are fun to read, some are trash.  Tevis is neither of these.  This is the same writer who wrote The Color of Money and The Hustler, novels about pool, and The Queen's Gambit, a novel about chess.  He writes a beautiful story about the human condition, which happens to be built around a sci-fi theme.

Thomas Newton looks much like an ordinary human.  To the casual observer, he blends right in.  What no one knows is that he came to Earth on a desperate mission to save his own people, who live on another planet in our solar system.  They have devastated their own planet, and want to prevent us from destroying the Earth, so that they can relocate here.  Newton's mission is to build a shuttle that he can send back home to bring his people to Earth.  Newton obtains patents for the advanced technological knowledge of his people and amasses a huge fortune, which he directs toward the building of the spaceship. 

Unfortunately, our world affects Newton more than he imagined.  Through his monitoring of Earth's television broadcasts, he became aware of the nuclear arms buildup.  During his time on Earth, he wonders about the inevitability of our self-destruction through nuclear war.  He wonders aloud to a scientist who works for him when and whether it might happen.  The scientist asks, "And what's going to stop it then?  Human virtue?  The Second Coming?"  Newton replies, "Maybe it will be the Second Coming indeed.  Maybe it will be Jesus Christ himself."  The scientist jokes, "If he come, he'd better watch his step."  Newton presciently replies, "I imagine he'll remember what happened to him the last time."

Any messianic hopes that may have been raised by Newton's coming are dashed, however, on his own succumbing to human nature.  It's almost as if Jesus were to come to Earth, but got sucked in by the mediocrity and pettiness of human life, instead of leading us above it.  Newton knew his mission would be difficult, but
he, the Anthean, a superior being from a superior race, was losing control, becoming a degenerate, a drunkard, a lost and foolish creature, a renegade and, possibly, a traitor to his own. . . . He felt like a man who had been surrounded by reasonably amiable, silly, and fairly intelligent animals, and has gradually discovered that their concepts and relationships are more complex than his training could have led him to suspect.  Such a man might discover that, in one or more of the many aspects of weighing and judging that are available to a high intelligence, the animals who surround him and who foul their own lairs and eat their own filth might be happier and wiser than he.
Ultimately, the authorities do capture him, but rather than decide he's a threat to us or our way of life, they release him to a quiet, lonely life.

Unlike much sci-fi, The Man Who Fell to Earth is more meditative and reflective than hard sci-fi or space opera.  It's worth a read, and raises some interesting questions about ultimate meaning.  For those who know Jesus, the real messiah, however, questions raised by a failed messiah ring hollow.

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