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Read an Excerpt from Melancholy Sci-Fi Classic The Man Who Fell to Earth

Walter Tevis' second novel is more relevant than ever today.

The Man Who Fell to Earth excerpt
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  • Featured image of 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' via ShowtimePhoto Credit: Showtime

In 1963 Walter Tevis published The Man Who Fell to Earth, a standalone novel about an undercover alien whose mission is endangered by earthly temptations.  

Author James Sallis praised the book as "an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist [...] the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written." 

Sallis was not alone in his enthusiasm for the novel, which was adapted into a cult 1976 film starring David Bowie as alien visitor Jerome Newton.

And on April 24, 2022 a new adaptation/sequel to the classic novel debuts on Showtime. The TV series deals with the climate crisis on Earth and stars Bill Nighy as Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor as an Anthean alien sent to find him, and Naomie Harris as a scientist.

In celebration of the upcoming show, The Portalist is sharing an excerpt from Tevis' seminal story. In the section below, Jerome Newton uses extraterrestrial technology to patent lucrative inventions on Earth. 

He hopes to use these funds to rescue the few of his kind left on a dying planet, but Anthea feels more distant every day....

Read on for an excerpt from The Man Who Fell to Earth, then download the book!

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The Man Who Fell to Earth

By Walter Tevis

The music was the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A Major. Just before the final allegretto, Farnsworth adjusted the bass response on each of the preamplifiers and boosted the volume slightly. Then he settled himself ponderously in the leather armchair. He liked the allegretto with strong bass overtones; they gave the clarinet a resonance which, in itself, seemed to hold some kind of meaning. He stared at the curtain window that overlooked Fifth Avenue; he folded his plump fingers together, and listened to the music build.

When it had finished and the tape had cut off its own power, he looked over toward the doorway that led into the outer office and saw that the maid was standing there patiently, waiting for him. He glanced at the porcelain clock on the mantel and frowned. Then he looked at the maid and said, “Yes?”

“A Mr. Newton is here, sir.”

“Newton?” He knew no wealthy Newtons. “What does he want?”

“He didn’t say, sir.” Then she raised one eyebrow slightly. “He’s odd, sir. And he looks very… important.”

He thought for a moment, and then said. “Show him in.”

The maid had been right; the man was very odd. Tall, thin, with white hair and a fine, delicate bone structure. He had smooth skin and a boyish face—but the eyes were very strange, as though they were weak, over-sensitive, yet with a look that was old and wise and tired. The man wore an expensive dark gray suit. He walked to a chair and sat down carefully—easing himself into the seat as if he were carrying a great deal of weight. Then he looked at Farnsworth and smiled. “Oliver Farnsworth?”

“Would you like a drink, Mr. Newton?”

“A glass of water, please.”

Farnsworth mentally shrugged his shoulders and relayed the order to the maid. Then, when she had left, he looked at his guest and leaned forward with that universal gesture which means, “Let’s get on with it.”

Newton, however, remained sitting erect, his long, thin hands folded in his lap, and said, “You are good “with patents, I understand?” There was a trace of an accent in his voice and his enunciation was too precise, too formal. Farnsworth could not identify the accent.

“Yes.” Farnsworth said, and then somewhat curtly, “I have office hours, Mr. Newton.”

Newton seemed not to hear this. His tone was gentle, warm. “I understand, in fact, that you are the best man in the United States with patents. Also that you are very expensive.”

“Yes. I’m good.”

“Fine.” the other said. He reached down beside his chair and lifted his briefcase.

“And what do you want?” Farnsworth looked at the clock again.

“I would like to plan some things with you.” The tall man was taking an envelope from his case.

“Isn’t it pretty late?”

Newton had opened the envelope and he now withdrew a thin sheaf of bills, wrapped with a rubber band. He looked up and smiled genially. “Would you please come and get these? It is very difficult for me to walk. My legs.”

Annoyed, Farnsworth pulled himself up from his chair, walked to the tall man, took the money, returned, and sat down. They were thousand-dollar bills.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth
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  • Still from 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' starring David Bowie.

    Photo Credit: British Lion Films

"There are ten of them,” Newton said.

“You’re being pretty damn melodramatic, aren’t you?” He put the stack into the pocket of his lounging-jacket. “Now what’s this for?”

“For tonight,” Newton said. “For about three hours of your close attention.”

“But why, for heaven’s sake, at night?”

The other shrugged his shoulders casually. “Oh, several reasons. Privacy is one of them.”

“You could have had my attention for less than ten thousand dollars.”

“Yes. But I also wanted to impress you with the… importance of our talk.”

“Well.” Farnsworth settled back in his chair. “Let’s talk.”

The thin man seemed relaxed, but he did not lean back. “First,” he said, “how much money do you make a year, Mr. Farnsworth?”

“I’m not on salary.”

“Well then. How much money did you make last year?”

“All right. You’ve paid for it. About one hundred forty thousand.”

“I see. You are, as these things go, then, wealthy?”

“Yes.”

“But you’d like more?”

This was becoming ridiculous. It was like a cheap television program. But the other man was paying; it was best to go along with it. He took a cigarette from a leather case and said, “Of course I’d like more.”

Newton leaned just a bit forward this time. “A great deal more, Mr. Farnsworth?” he said, smiling, beginning to enjoy the situation enormously.

This was television too, of course, but it got across. “Yes,” he said, and then, “Cigarette?” He held the case out to his guest.

Ignoring the offer, the man with the white, curly hair said, “I can make you very rich, Mr. Farnsworth, if you can devote your next five years entirely to me."

Farnsworth kept his face expressionless, lit his cigarette while his mind worked rapidly, turning this whole strange interview over, puzzling with the situation, with the slim possibility of this man’s offer being sane. But the man, freak that he might be, had money. It would be wise to play along for a while. The maid came in with a silver tray with glasses and ice.

Newton took his glass of water from the tray gingerly, and then held it with one hand while he withdrew an aspirin box from his pocket with the other, flipped it open with his thumb, and dropped one of the pills into the water. The pill dissolved, white and murky. He held the glass and watched it for a moment, and then began sipping, extremely slowly.

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Farnsworth was a lawyer; he had an eye for detail. He saw instantly that there was something odd about the aspirin box. It was a common object, obviously a box of Bayer aspirin; but there was something about it that was wrong. And something was not right about the way that Newton was sipping the water, slowly, careful not to spill a drop—as if it were precious. And the water had clouded from one aspirin; that seemed wrong. He would have to try it with an aspirin later, when the man was gone, and see what happened.

Before the maid left, Newton asked her to take his briefcase to Farnsworth. When she had gone he took a last, loving sip and set his glass, still nearly full, beside him on the table. “There are some things in the briefcase I’d like you to read.”

Farnsworth opened the bag, found a thick sheaf of papers and pulled them out on to his lap. The paper, he noticed immediately, had an unusual feel. Extremely thin, it was hard and yet flexible. The top sheet consisted mostly of chemical formulas neatly printed in bluish ink. He shuffled through the rest; circuit diagrams, charts, and schematic drawings of what appeared to be plant equipment. Tools and dies. At a glance, some of the formulas seemed familiar. He looked up. “Electronics?”

“Yes. Partly. You are familiar with that kind of equipment?”

Farnsworth did not answer. If the other man knew anything about him at all, he knew that he had fought half a dozen battles, as leader of a group of nearly forty lawyers, for the corporate life of one of the largest electronics-parts manufacturing combines in the world. He began reading the papers….

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  • Photo Credit: Showtime

More than two hours passed before Farnsworth looked up from the papers. During that time he drank three glasses of whiskey. His eyes were pink at the corners. He blinked at Newton, at first hardly seeing him and then focusing on him, his small eyes wide.

“Well?” Newton said, still smiling.

The fat man took a breath, then shook his head as if trying to clear his mind. When he spoke, his voice was soft, hesitant, extremely cautious. “I don’t understand them all.” he said. “Only a few. A few. I don’t understand optics—or photographic films.” He looked back to the papers in his hand, as if making sure they were still there. “I’m a lawyer, Mr. Newton,” he said. “I’m a lawyer.” And then, suddenly, his voice came alive, trembling and strong, his fat body and his tiny eyes intent, alert. “But I know electronics. And I know dyes. I think I understand your… amplifier and I think I understand your television, and…” He paused for a moment, blinking. “My God, I think they can be manufactured the way you say they can.” He let out his breath, slowly. “They look convincing, Mr. Newton. I think they “can.” He let out his breath, slowly. “They look convincing, Mr. Newton. I think they will work.”

Newton was still smiling at him. “They will work. All of them.”

Farnsworth took out a cigarette and lit it, calming himself. “I’ll have to check them. The metals, the circuits…” And then, suddenly, interrupting himself, the cigarette clutched between his fat fingers, “Good God, man, do you know what all of this means? Do you know that you have nine basic—that’s basic patents here.” He raised one paper in a pudgy hand, “Here in just the video transmission and in that little rectifier? And… do you know what that means?”

Newton’s expression did not change. “Yes. I know what it means,” he said.

Farnsworth inhaled slowly from his cigarette. “If you’re right, Mr. Newton,” he said, his voice becoming calmer now, “if you’re right you can have RCA, Eastman Kodak. My Lord, you can have Du Pont. Do you know what you have here?”

Newton stared hard at him. “I know what I have here,” he said.

***

It took them six hours to drive to Farnsworth’s country home. Newton tried to keep up their conversation for part of the time, bracing himself in the corner of the limousine’s back seat, bracing himself in the corner of the limousine’s back seat, but the heavy accelerations of the car were too blindingly painful to his body, already overloaded with the pull of a gravitation that he knew it would take him years to become used to, and he was forced to tell the lawyer that he was very tired and needed to rest. Then he closed his eyes, let the cushioned back of the seat bear his weight as much as possible, and withstood the pain as well as he could. The air in the car was very warm to him, too—the temperature of their hottest days at home.

Eventually, as they passed beyond the edge of the city, the chauffeur’s driving became more steady, and the painful jerks of stopping and starting began to subside. He glanced a few times at Farnsworth. The lawyer was not dozing. He was sitting with his elbows on his knees, still shuffling through the papers that Newton had given him, his little eyes bright, intense.

The house was an immense place, isolated in a great wooded area. The building and the trees seemed wet, glistening dimly in the gray morning light that was much like the light, glistening dimly in the gray morning light that was much like the light of midday of Anthea. It was refreshing to his over-sensitive eyes. He liked the woods, the quiet sense of life in them, and the glistening moisture—the sense of water and of fruitfulness that this earth overflowed with, even down to the continual trilling and chirping sounds of the insects. It would be an endless source of delight compared to his own world, with the dryness, the emptiness, the soundlessness of the broad, empty deserts between the almost deserted cities where the only sound was the whining of the cold and endless wind that voiced the agony of his own, dying people….

A servant, sleepy-eyed and wearing a bathrobe, met them at the door. Farnsworth dismissed the man with an order for coffee, and then shouted after him that he must have a room prepared for his guest and that he would receive no telephone calls for at least three days. Then Farnsworth led him into the library.

The room was very big and even more expensively decorated than the study in the New York apartment had been. Obviously Farnsworth read the best rich men’s magazines. In the center of the floor was a white statue of a naked woman holding an elaborate lyre. Two of the walls were covered with bookshelves, and on the third was a large painting of a religious figure whom Newton recognized as Jesus, nailed to a wooden cross. The face in the picture startled him for a moment—with its thinness and large piercing eyes it could have been the face of an Anthean.

[...] That evening, after six hours of talking and planning, he stood for a long time on the balcony outside his room, enjoying the cool air and looking at the black sky. The stars and the planets seemed strange, shimmering in the heavy atmosphere, and he enjoyed staring at them, in their unfamiliar positions. But he knew little of astronomy, and the patterns were confusing to him—except for those of the Big Dipper and a few minor constellations. Finally he returned to his room. It would have been pleasant to know which one was Anthea; but he could not tell….

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