Polish Books I: ‘Return from the Stars’ by Stanislaw Lem

On my trip to Poland, I took along three books by Polish writers: Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem, Collected Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, and The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz. My European friends taught me this habit; it disrupts your ordinary reading patterns to stimulating effect. I’ve finished the books, and now post a few thoughts.

LemFirst to Lem, a visionary Polish science fiction writer (here’s a clever website site about him). His 1961 novel Solaris was made into a movie in 1972 by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, and in 2002 by the American Steven Soderbergh. Judging by this interview (G), Lem disliked both films, most other humans, J.K. Rowling, and all other science fiction writers except for Philip K. Dick.

Return from the Stars was written in 1961, but translated into Western languages only in the mid-1970s, when Lem’s fame began crossing borders. I read it in a German translation from 1976; its German title is Transfer. As the book opens, we meet Hal Bregg, an astronaut who’s just returned from a research expedition to the nearby star Fomalhaut and environs. The journey lasted 127 earth-years, but only ten years aboard the ship thanks to relativistic time-dilation. When Bregg returned, the government (we’re never told which one) sent him to ADAPT, a training center, which is supposed to help returning spacemen adjust to a deeply-altered earth. The course has the sugary, airbrushed feel of indoctrination, so Bregg breaks it off after a short while. After all, he survived the howling, radioactive wasteland of Fomalhaut; how much of a challenge could Brave New Earth be?

Quite a challenge, it turns out. The first half of the book, which traces Bregg’s exploration of the Earth, is dazzling. The main transit station, in a city whose name he doesn’t know, is cavernous, seems to have no walls or spatial boundaries, and is filled with soft-edged whizzing platforms that glide silently hither and thither, depositing passengers. Walls, where they exist, are transparent, or glowing, and sometimes turn into giant television screens. As an experienced space traveler who’s been pounded to pulp by G-forces, Bregg cannot help noticing that there are no G-forces; passengers can walk freely about even when the platform they are standing on acclerates or decelerates.

Humans have also changed. Women wear dresses with eyes that blink, and put glowing diodes inside their noses, so their nostrils shine with an eerie luminescence. One of them picks him up at a floating bar and takes him directly home, to his surprise. Girls were never this bold when I was a lad, Hal thinks. Hal explains his story, half-expecting the young thing to be entranced by his tales of intergalactic adventure. Instead, she draws back from him, stuttering: "you haven’t been betrisized!"

Yes, ‘betrisized’. All humans have undergone betrisization, a chemical procedure performed shortly after birth that destroys aggressive impulses without otherwise affecting the personality. Here we see Lem’s careful and punctilious futuristic imagination, which makes Return from the Stars intermittently brilliant. Lem, who spent many years of his life translating scientific treatises and carefully investigating space travel, robotics, and mathematics, is bent on creating a future with wrinkles and contradictions.

The introduction of universal betrisization (the word is drawn from the names of the researchers who perfected it) took years, and sparked bloody anti-betrisization uprisings -especially in South America, where, Lem notes drily, macho sports and risk-taking were deeply ingrained. However, betrisization put and end to war, murder, and crimes of passion, as well as all human risk-taking. It also created a generation conflict, since betrisized children grew up rejecting their parents’ martial values. Confrontational works of art, or for that matter anything involving warfare, killing, or risk, disgusts them.

Other innovations: Dangerous work – in fact all work – is now performed by robots. Science had long since perfected robots that looked indistinguishable from humans. However, many people developed phobias based on this indistinguishability, so the cyborgs were scrapped in favor of "good old-fashioned" robots with functional metal bodies and blinking lights. Gravity can be temporarily conquered by means of a device which functions like noise-canceling headphones: it reads the gravitational information from the vehicle it’s built into, and produces a compensating impulse of anti-momentum to cancel it out. This means no more G-forces, and no more accidents, since the device can predict a collision and created an anti-momentum buffer to prevent it from taking place.

Furniture sprouts out of walls and floors in response to your desire to sit or sleep. Niches in the walls produce food on demand. The food itself pops open or expands when touched. Bregg, unaware of how to "operate" the food of the future, usually ends up wearing it most of it by the end of the meal. This is no problem, since clothes can be sprayed instantly out of a can. However, this too takes skills which Bregg must slowly master, and in the meantime he sprays himself absurd, asymmetrical clown suits.

Bregg is a very rich man. According to his contract, a sum was deposited for him when he took off and has been collecting interest ever since. When he returns, it has grown to a huge sum of "itens", futuristic currency units. However, he will never be able to spend it all. In the future, almost everthing is free, which only makes sense: there’s no need for humans to work, and robots don’t need to be paid. The only things that cost itens are rarities such as the antique car Hal buys for himself. When he must pay for something, he carries around a small device which holds all his virtual money, and, on demand, prints out tokens with the amount he wishes to spend. Books come on tiny chips that hold thousands of volumes; all you need is an electronic reading device to display the pages.

In addition to virtual money and mass data storage, Lem predicted virtual reality with startling foresight for 1961. For entertainment, people visit amusement parks which plunge them into exciting virtual-reality adventures. Hal, for instance, takes a convincing canoe ride in Africa, complete with raging rivers, a rickety boat, sweaty, screaming native guides, the pungent odor of swamps and fire, and sudden immersions under waterfalls. He makes a risky move during this interactive adventure — one that no betrisized human would have attempted. The program cannot reckon with his recklessness, and he falls out of the virtual world onto a soft rubber platform, in front of a crowd of laughing non-virtual spectators who’ve been watching the contestants leap about in a small chamber.

During the second half of the book, Hal begins to suffer the effects of alienation. He himself is a relic. He’s much taller than normal humans, owing to the physiological effects of space travel, and has gray hair and scars, things which have long been remedied by advanced surgical techniques. Manned space travel, he finds out to his chagrin has long since been abandoned as pointless and suicidal. Many of Hal’s crewmates perished during their harrowing interstellar adventures, and no successors can be found who would be willing to put their lives at stake "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Betrisization put paid to that instinct long ago.

Hal begins to feel profoundly isolated – like an artist, you could say, rebelling against social conventions everyone else takes for granted and finds beneficial. He looks up other returned crew members from his own and other interstellar flights. Like Hal, they have begun to suffer signs of severe mental illness, and cannot connect even with their fellow alienated astronaut comrades.

The book, sad to say, becomes weaker as Hal’s personality is more fully probed. It stays interesting — Hal’s growing alienation is portrayed with harrowing psychological realism. He finds, for instance, that he misses risk. After he buys his antique car, he rips the "little black box" out of it which would prevent him from crashing, and drives around like a maniac, just to have the feel of putting his life in danger and relying on instinct and impulse.

However, at least in this book, Lem’s dialogue and psychological insight are no match for his narrative skills and futuristic imagination. Many of the the encounters that populate the latter part of the book – such as Hal’s debates with fellow astronauts over the changes in the world they left behind, are interesting but clumsily formulated. At times, the stilted, science-laden debates have whiff of Star Trek about them. There’s a love story, but because of its thick philosophical veneer, it never really engages the reader.

Although far from perfect, Return from the Stars boasted many fascinating stretches. It’s apparently considered one of Lem’s weakest books, so I look forward to exploring his stronger ones.

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