An astronaut returns to Earth after a ten-year mission and finds a society that he barely recognizes.
Stanislaw Lem's Return from the Stars recounts the experiences of Hal Bregg, an astronaut who returns from an exploratory mission that lasted ten yearsalthough because of time dilation, 127 years have passed on Earth. Bregg finds a society that he hardly recognizes, in which danger has been eradicated. Children are “betrizated” to remove all aggression and violencea process that also removes all impulse to take risks and explore. The people of Earth view Bregg and his crew as “resuscitated Neanderthals,” and pressure them to undergo betrization. Bregg has serious difficulty in navigating the new social mores.
While Lem's depiction of a risk-free society is bleak, he does not portray Bregg and his fellow astronauts as heroes. Indeed, faced with no opposition to his aggression, Bregg behaves abominably. He is faced with a choice: leave Earth again and hope to return to a different society in several hundred years, or stay on Earth and learn to be content. With Return from the Stars , Lem shows the shifting boundaries between utopia and dystopia.
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I took nothing with me, not even a coat. Unnecessary, they said. They let me keep my black sweater: it would pass. But the shirt I had to fight for. I said that I would learn to do without things gradually. At the very ramp, beneath the belly of the ship, where we stood, jostled by the crowd, Abs offered me his hand with an understanding smile:
"Easy, now ..."
That, too, I remembered. I didn't crush his fingers. I was quite calm. He wanted to say something more. I spared him that, turning away as if I had not noticed anything, and went up the stairs and inside. The stewardess led me between the rows of seats to the very front. I hadn't wanted a private compartment. I wondered if they had told her. My seat unfolded without a sound. She adjusted the back of it, gave me a smile, and left. I sat down. The cushions were engulfingly soft, as everywhere. The back of my seat was so high that I could barely see the other passengers. The bright colors of the women's clothes I had by now learned to accept, but the men I still suspected, irrationally, of affectation, and I had the secret hope that I would come across some dressed normally — a pitiful reflex. People were seated quickly, no one had luggage. Not even a briefcase or a package. The women, too. There seemed to be more of them. In front of me: two mulatto women in parrot-green furs, ruffled like feathers — apparently, that sort of bird style was in fashion. Farther away, a couple with a child. After the garish selenium lights of the platforms and tunnels, after the unbearably shrill incandescent vegetation of the streets, the light from the concave ceiling seemed practically a glow. I did not know what to do with my hands, so I put them on my knees. Everyone was seated now. Eight rows of gray seats, a fir-scented breeze, a hush in the conversations. I expected an announcement about takeoff, signals of some sort, the warning to fasten seat belts, but nothing happened. Across the dull ceiling faint shadows began to move from front to rear, like paper cutouts of birds. What the hell is it with these birds? I wondered, perplexed. Does it mean something? I was numb from the strain of trying not to do anything wrong. This, for four days now. From the very first moment I was invariably behind in everything that went on, and the constant effort to understand the simplest conversation or situation turned that tension into a feeling horribly like despair. I was certain that the others were experiencing the same things, but we did not talk about it, not even when we were alone together. We only joked about our brawn, about that excessive strength that had remained in us, and indeed we had to be on our guard — in the beginning, intending to get up, I would go shooting toward the ceiling, and any object that I held in my hand seemed to be made of paper, empty. But I quickly learned to control my body. In greeting people, I no longer crushed their hands. That was easy. But, unfortunately, the least important.
My neighbor to the left — corpulent tan, with eyes that shone too much (from contact lenses?) — suddenly disappeared; his seat expanded at the sides, which rose and joined to form a kind of egg-shaped cocoon. A few other people disappeared into such cubicles. Swollen sarcophagi. What did they do in them? But such things I encountered all the time, and tried not to stare, as long as they did not concern me directly. Curiously, the people who gaped at us on learning what we were I treated with indifference. Their dumbfoundedness did not concern me much, although I realized immediately that there was not an iota of admiration in it. What did arouse my antipathy were the ones who looked after us — the staff of Adapt. Dr. Abs most of all, because he treated me the way a doctor would an abnormal patient, pretending, and very well, too, that he was dealing with someone quite ordinary. When that became impossible, he would joke. I had had enough of his direct approach and joviality. If asked about it (or so, at least I thought), the man on the street would say that Olaf or I was similar to himself — we were not so outlandish to him, it was just our past existence that was unusual. Dr. Abs, on the other hand, and all the workers at Adapt, knew better — that we were decidedly different. This differentness was no mark of distinction but only a barrier to communication, to the simplest exchange of words, hell, to the opening of a door, seeing as doorknobs had ceased to exist — what was it? — some fifty or sixty years earlier.
The takeoff came unexpectedly. There was no change at all in gravity, no sound reached the hermetically sealed interior, the shadows swam evenly across the ceiling — it might have been habit established over many years, an old instinct, that told me that at a certain moment we were in space, because it was certainty, not a guess.
But something else was occupying me. I sat half supine, my legs stretched out, motionless. They had let me have my way too easily. Even Oswamm did not oppose my decision too much. The counterarguments that I heard from him and from Abs were unconvincing — I myself could have come up with better. They insisted on one thing only, that each of us fly separately. They did not even hold it against me that I got Olaf to rebel (because if it had not been for me, he definitely would have agreed to stay there longer). That had been odd. I had expected complications, something that would spoil my plan at the last minute, but nothing happened, and now here I was flying. This final journey was to end in fifteen minutes.
Clearly, what I had devised, and the way, too, that I went before them to argue for an earlier departure, did not surprise them. They must have had a reaction of this type catalogued, it was a behavior pattern characteristic of a stalwart such as myself, assigned an appropriate serial number in their psychotechnical tables. They permitted me to fly — why? Because experience had told them that I would not be able to manage on my own? But how could that be, when this whole "independence" escapade involved flying from one terminal to another, where someone from the Earth branch of Adapt would be waiting and all I had to do was to find him at a prearranged location? Something happened. I heard raised voices. I leaned out of my seat. Several rows in front of me a woman pushed away the stewardess, who, with a slow, automatic motion, as if from the push — though the push had not been all that hard — went backward down the aisle, and the woman repeated, "I won't have it! Don't let that touch me." I did not see the face of the speaker. Her companion pulled at her arm, was saying something to calm her. What was the meaning of this little scene? The other passengers paid no attention to her. For the hundredth time I was possessed by a feeling of incredible alienation. I looked up at the stewardess, who had stopped by my side and was smiling as before. It was not merely an external smile of official politeness, a smile to cover an upsetting incident. She was not pretending to be calm, she truly was calm.
"Something to drink? Prum, extran, morr, cider?"
A melodious voice. I shook my head. I wanted to say something nice to her, but all I could come up with was the stereotyped question:
"When do we land?"
"In six minutes. Would you care for something to eat? There is no need to hurry. You can stay on after we land."
"No, thank you."
She left. In the air, right before my face, against the background of the seat in front of me, a sign that read STRATO lit up, as though written with the glowing end of a cigarette. I bent forward to see where the sign came from, and flinched. The back of my seat moved with my shoulders and clung to them elastically. I knew already that furniture accommodated every change in position, but I kept forgetting. It was not pleasant — as if someone were following my every move. I wanted to return to my former position but apparently overdid it. The seat misunderstood and nearly flattened itself out like a bed. I jumped up. This was idiotic! More control. I sat, finally. The pink letters of STRATO flickered and flowed into others: TERMINAL. No jolt, no warning, no whistle. Nothing. A distant voice resounded like the horn of a postilion, four oval doors opened at the end of the aisle, and a hollow, all-embracing roar, like that of the sea, rushed in. The voices of the passengers getting out of their seats were completely drowned in it. I remained seated while they exited, a file of silhouettes floating by before the outside lights, green, lilac, purple — a veritable masked ball. Then they were gone. I stood up. Mechanically straightened my sweater. Feeling stupid, somehow, with my hands empty. Through the open door came cooler air. I turned. The stewardess was standing by the partition wall, not touching it with her back. On her face was the same tranquil smile, directed at the empty rows of seats, which now on their own began to roll up, to furl, like fleshy flowers, some faster, some a little more slowly — this was the only movement in the all-embracing, drawn-out roar that flowed in through the oval openings and brought to mind the open sea. "Don't let that touch me!" Suddenly I found something not right in her smile. From the exit I said:
The significance of that reply, so peculiar coming from the lips of a beautiful young woman, I did not immediately grasp, for it reached me when my back was turned, as I was halfway out the door. I went to put my foot on a step, but there was no step. Between the metal hull and the edge of the platform yawned a meter-wide crevice. Caught off balance, unprepared for such a trap, I made a clumsy leap and, in midair, felt an invisible flow of force take hold of me as if from below, so that I floated across the void and was set down softly on a white surface, which yielded elastically. In flight, I must have had a none-too-intelligent expression on my face — I felt a number of amused stares, or so it seemed to me. I quickly turned away and walked along the platform. The rocket on which I had arrived was resting in a deep bay, separated from the edge of the platforms by an unprotected abyss. I drew close to this empty space, as if unintentionally, and for the second time felt an invisible resilience that kept me from crossing the white border. I wanted to locate the source of this peculiar force, but suddenly, as if I were waking up, it occurred to me: I was on Earth.
A wave of pedestrians caught me up; jostled, I moved forward in the crowd. It took a moment for me really to see the size of the hall. But was it all one hall? No walls: a glittering white high-held explosion of unbelievable wings; between them, columns, made not of any substance but of dizzying motion. Rushing upward, enormous fountains of a liquid denser than water, illuminated from inside by colored floodlights? No — vertical tunnels of glass through which a succession of blurred vehicles raced upward? Now I was completely at a loss. Constantly pushed and shoved in the swarming crowds, I attempted to work my way to some clear space, but there were no clear spaces here. Being a head taller than those around me, I was able to see that the empty rocket was moving off — no, it was we who were gliding forward with the entire platform. From above, lights flared, and in them the people sparkled and shimmered. Now the flat surface on which we stood close together began to move upward and I saw below, in the distance, double white belts packed with people, and gaping black crevices along inert hulls — for there were dozens of ships like ours. The moving platform made a turn, accelerated, continued to higher levels. Thundering, fluttering the hair of those who were standing with strong gusts of wind, there hurtled past on them, as on impossible (for completely unsupported) viaducts, oval shadows, trembling with speed and trailing long streaks of flame, their signal lights; then the surface carrying us began to branch, dividing along imperceptible seams; my strip passed through an interior filled with people both standing and seated; a multitude of tiny flashes surrounded them, as though they were engaged in setting off colored fireworks.
I did not know where to look. In front of me stood a man in something fluffy like fur, which, when touched by light, opalesced like metal. He supported by the arm a woman in scarlet. What she had on was all in large eyes, peacock eyes, and the eyes blinked. It was no illusion — the eyes on her dress actually opened and closed. The walkway, on which I stood behind the two of them and among a dozen other people, picked up speed. Between surfaces of smoke-white glass there opened colored, lighted malls with transparent ceilings, ceilings trod upon continuously by hundreds of feet on the floor above; the all-embracing roar now swelled, now was confined, as thousands of human voices and sounds — meaningless to me, meaningful to them — were swallowed by each successive tunnel of this journey whose destination I did not know. In the distance the surrounding space kept being pierced by streaks of vehicles unknown to me — aircraft, probably, because now and then they veered up or down, spiraling into space, so that I automatically expected a terrible crash, since I saw neither guide wires nor rails, if these were elevated trams. When the blurred hurricanes of motion were interrupted for a moment, from behind them emerged majestically slow, huge surfaces filled with people, like flying stations, which went in various directions, passed one another, lifted, and seemed to merge by tricks of perspective. It was hard to rest the eye on anything that was not in motion, because the architecture on all sides appeared to consist in motion alone, in change, and even what I had initially taken to be a vaulted ceiling were only overhanging tiers, tiers that now gave way to other, higher tiers and levels. Suddenly a heavy purple glare, as though an atomic fire had flared up somewhere far away in the heart of the building, filtered its way through the glass of the ceilings, of those mysterious columns, and was reflected by the silver surfaces; it bled into every corner, into the interiors of the passageways that glided by, into the features of the people. The green of the incessantly jumping neons became dingy; the milkiness of the parabolic buttresses grew pink. In this sudden saturation of the air with redness lay a foreboding of catastrophe, or so it seemed to me, but no one paid the least attention to the change, and I could not even say when it cleared away.
At the sides of our ramp appeared whirling green circles, like neon rings suspended in midair, whereupon some of the people stepped down onto the approaching branch of another ramp or walkway; I observed that one could pass through the green lines of those lights quite freely, as if they were not material.
For a while I let myself be carried along by the white walkway, until it occurred to me that perhaps I was already outside the station and that this fantastic panorama of sloping glass, which looked constantly as if on the verge of flight, was in fact the city, and that the one I had left behind existed now only in my memory.
"Excuse me." I touched the arm of the man in fur.
"Where are we?"
They both looked at me. Their faces, when they raised them, took on a startled expression. I had the faint hope that it was only because of my height.
"On the polyduct," said the man. "Which is your switch?" I did not understand.
"Are ... are we still in the station?"
"Obviously," he replied with a certain caution.
"But ... where is the Inner Circle?"
"You've already missed it. You'll have to backtrack."
"The rast from Merid would be better," said the woman. All the eyes of her dress seemed to stare at me with suspicion and amazement.
"Rast?" I repeated helplessly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Return from the Stars"
Copyright © 1961 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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