Just back from holiday, during which (among other things) I read Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel “Return from the Stars”. It’s about an astronaut, Hal, who returns to Earth following a near-light speed mission. This means that time passed much faster on Earth than it did for him, so everyone he knew at the time of his departure is long dead. The world he returns to is considerably more technologically advanced than the one he left and human civilisation has lost all interest in spaceflight – so he is regarded as a curious relic of a bygone age, obsessed with macho feats of exploration that no one can relate to any more. The reason they can’t relate to it is that they have all been “betrizated”. Betrization removes aggressive, risk-taking tendencies, including the ability to kill (except under certain extreme circumstances). Hal initially regards this as an appalling neutering of the species (particularly the male of the species), leaving no room for the kind of individualistic, risk-taking behaviour that has defined his own life. In this respect, the novel reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but with betrization taking the place of eugenics.
Given that Lem was writing in Poland before the fall of the Soviet Union, it is tempting to read the novel as a veiled attack on communism, projecting what will happen if certain aspects of that ideology – particularly its emphasis on equality of outcome – are taken to their logical conclusions. But by the end, Hal has come to accept that at least some aspects of the civilisation to which he has returned are genuinely admirable – so the picture that emerges is rather more than complex than it first appears.
For a novel written in 1961, a time when space exploration still had a hold over the public imagination, it is eerily prescient – because even without betrization, we seem (within a relatively short period of time) to have lost interest in manned space missions. Instead we seem to have become far more interested in networking amongst ourselves – and in that sense, we are (like the world depicted in the book) a civilisation which is increasingly turned in on itself, rather than outward looking. That may sound like quite a negative characterisation, but what I really liked about the novel was its readiness to acknowledge that things aren’t necessarily quite so black and white. For example, the planets Hal has visited prove to be completely inhospitable - they have little to offer humans, beyond data for scientists to process on their return to Earth. So maybe the fact that the civilisation in the novel has turned away from the stars reflects a mature realisation that its energies are better deployed in developing in a completely different direction (albeit one which feels in many respects quite alien to us, from our current standpoint).
I am probably at risk of making it sound as if the novel is an arid piece of speculative theorising but in fact, it works very well at a basic story-telling level. The key to this is Lem’s focus on Hal’s emotional reaction to his situation – his anger, frustration and disgust at many aspects of the world that confronts him and his (often clumsy) efforts to carve out a new life for himself, particularly his attempts to build relationships with a number of different women.
I preferred it to “Solaris”, which is the best known Lem novel, and would rate it as highly as “His Master’s Voice” and “Fiasco”. It would make an excellent film – more in the tradition of art-house sci-fi like “Gattaca” than as a blockbuster Hollywood movie (although someone like George Clooney would be ideal for the part of Hal – he should have filmed this novel instead of remaking Solaris).
In : Book reviews
Tags: sci-fi lem futurology
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