Stanislaw Lem is well known for one of the major themes in his fiction: the impossibility and futility of communicating with aliens (as in Solaris, for instance). In Return from the Stars (1961), he brings that theme a little closer to home, by suggesting that communication and understanding are problematic even within our own species, between peoples separated by different cultures or times. The separation in this novel comes about when the crew of an exploratory voyage to other stars returns to Earth. Due to the effects of relativity, the crew has aged ten years, while one and a quarter centuries has passed at home. When Hal Bregg and his companions get back, they find a society vastly different from the one they left, a society profoundly disturbing and exceedingly difficult to adjust to.
The first chapter really gets across the sense of alienation, as Bregg (and the reader along with him) is lost and confused, and wanders around in a city so complex and bewildering as to seem completely inhuman. Later, as he begins to have more interaction with the people of this city, he realizes, to his discomfort and dismay, that it’s not only the buildings that seem alien:
I looked at her, silent. The language had not changed so very much, and yet I didn’t understand a thing. Not a thing. It was they who had changed.
Society had indeed changed, drastically so, and the primary reason is a process called “betrization,” discovered shortly after Bregg’s mission left Earth. In the roughest, most general terms, betrization is a sort of chemical lobotomy. More specifically, it involves a mixture of enzymes administered in childhood which act on the developing brain to almost entirely eliminate any desire for violence. This new treatment quickly became mandatory and swept throughout the world, fundamentally changing human society. The betrizated subject is unable to commit violent acts, and most are unable to even imagine such acts. Also lost, along with the instinct for violence, is any tolerance for risk. In this future world, every task with any level of danger is performed by machines or robots. Only the most innocent of sports are engaged in (no contact sports, no boxing or football). Vehicles have safety features that make accidents unheard of. People have lost interest in space exploration — too dangerous. It’s a society that has lost all sense of adventure, and along the way they’ve lost some fundamental essence of human vitality; they exist but they don’t really live. One of Bregg’s companions observes:
“Today there is no tragedy. Not even the possibility of it. We eliminated the hell of passion, and then it turned out that in the same sweep, heaven, too, had ceased to be. Everything is now lukewarm…”
As Bregg researches the betrization process, he tries to imagine what it’s like inside a betrizated person’s head, how it actually feels, how such a person really views the world. And he fails utterly, he just can’t get a grasp on it. Modern humanity remains distant and inexplicable to him.
In one of the most significant scenes in the book (to me at least), Bregg visits a recycling plant that processes scrap metal, including outdated or malfunctioning robots (which outnumber humans 18-to-1). He listens to a pile of robots waiting to be melted down in the furnace, and as they complain about their fate and beg to be rescued, these artificial creatures exhibit more passion and will to live, in this short scene, than all of modern humanity in the rest of the book.
In addition to the difficulties of adapting to a new and bizarre society, Bregg also struggles with the fact that the world he knew, and everyone he loved, is gone. He briefly considers, and then rejects, the idea of contacting any relatives who may still live, finding that his sense of deep alienation extends even to them:
How had my father died? My mother? I had died to them earlier and now had no right, as their surviving child, to ask. It would have been — or so I felt at that moment — an act of treachery, as if I had tricked them, evading fate in a cowardly escape, hiding myself within time, which had been less mortal for me than for them. It was they who had buried me, among the stars, not I them, on Earth.
This future world is neither an obvious utopia, nor an obvious dystopia. Betrizated society certainly has some benefits, but they come at a steep cost. There are no easy answers here; there is only the struggle by Bregg and the other returned astronauts to find their place in this altered world. Lem does an excellent job of portraying that struggle, and the intense psychological stresses acting on these men, especially Bregg. This is definitely one of the most mature and thoughtful novels I’ve ever read exploring the concept of alienation.