Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book review: Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem

I jump at any Lem I see in the used bookstores.  This was not one I was familiar with, so I took advantage of its availability a couple months ago.

There it sat, on my shelf, ever since this past week.

Reading through it in a few marathon sessions (it's an uncharacteristically light and easy breeze of a read for a Lem novel), I'm mad at myself for waiting so long.

If you know Lem's more serious dramatic works, you will be familiar with the regretful outsider protagonist.  The one that, on top of being completely displaced in a nearly alien world and all of its uncomfortably unfamiliar things and practices, has another world of personal regret and conflict to reconcile with.  Hal Bregg, a near-Superman from the past, must make sense of the doomed space travel mission he has returned to Earth from, but first, he must make peace with a world that "betrizates" itself in order to dull the senses and make people immune from aggressive thoughts and urges.  Robots do everything else.  Cities are built in stacked levels, for which each level has an imaginary sky projected on a huge television screen on the floor of the next level up.  Space travel and research for lifeforms outside of of Earth have now been deemed obsolete and primitive.

This all confronts a man who is physically 30 years old, but technically 140.  He has the guilt of possibly the responsibility of the death of crew members on his conscience.  He has no immediate family.  He is completely isolated and unique (in a now socially awkward way).

Amongst his wanderings back on Earth, Hal is introduced to a shocking new way of life that seems pleasant on the surface, but in actuality, only raises more unrest in a mind that has the remembrance and knowledge that his has.  In typical Lem fashion, you, as the reader, are immediately catapulted into this unfamiliar world, without explanation.  Dialogue is fractured and many things are left open and unexplained.  The feeling of being absolutely lost and engulfed in this magnificent future of mystery and trippy landscapes is imposed immediately on the reader and it's certainly not by accident that there are no shortage of typical Lem-isms — that is, made up words to signify new technology that is commonplace in this future, but that seems completely alien to a contemporary reader.  The numerous ideas and things tossed out at random as ho-hum technologies in the time that this story takes place —the type that would be completely revolutionary if they were to actually materialize— are too many to count.  A short example: optons.  They are essentially an electronic tablet, not that different from a Kindle or an iPad, in which books or other information can be loaded onto for reference later on (Return from the Stars was first published in 1961).

As with all of Lem's works, satirical or serious, this one envelopes the reader in another world entirely.  That this book takes a less "heady" approach (though no less trippy, as the many city scenes from before Hal leaves for Clavestra illustrate), and instead aims for a more emotional landscape is where it wins.  Lem has always been capable of tugging at the deep thinker's heartstrings —Solaris, amidst pages upon pages of nearly incomprehensible technobabble, still somehow manages to be deeply resonating and emotive— but Return is just a master toying with his craft.  That he leaves out no minutiae —I don't think there's a meal that's not accounted for, nor how many words were actually uttered during its discourse— and yet, still manages an emotional finale unmatched in any of the other works of his I've read. . . well, that's pretty impressive.

There's plenty of action, too.  Though, most of it occurs through flashbacks.  Really though, it's the emotional core and how, in the final act, there is not a single mention of any piece of futuristic technology that pushes this one over the top.

In the middle of all this is a world gone mad with betrization.  So much commentary on how people don't truly understand their own impulses and desires before acting on them.  The betrizated society comes into question very early on in the story.  The logistics as to how  real any person walking around actually is if they've been treated to essentially not act like themselves are weighed right up front.  Very loaded.  Typical Lem.

A singular experience and one of his very best works, I'd say.


Such an inspiring and wonderful work, in fact, that I've been moved to create another podcast containing songs that I feel conjure up moods that this story evokes.  No title for this one, just pure feeling.  Enjoy.

1)  Brian Eno — 'A Clearing' (1982)
2)  Human League — 'The Path of Least Resistance' (1979)
3)  Red Sparowes — 'A Message of Avarice Rained Down and Carried Us Away to False Dreams of Endless Riches' (2006)
4)  Cocteau Twins — 'Lazy Calm' (1986)
5)  The Durutti Column — 'Falling' (2001)
6)  The Reegs — 'The Nasty Side' (1993)
7)  DJ Shadow — 'Blood on the Motorway' (2002)
8)  Slowdive — 'Changes' (1994)
9)  Sam Prekop — 'November September' (2010)
10)  Eberhard Weber — 'T on a White Horse' (1977)
11)  Kraftwerk — 'Ananas Symphonie' (1975)
12)  Tangerine Dream — 'Invisible Limits' (1976)
13)  Harmonia — 'Almost' (1976)
14)  William Ackerman — 'The Search for the Turtle's Navel' (1977)
15)  Trembling Blue Stars — 'Branches' (2005)
16)  Brian Eno — 'Always Returning' (1983)
17)  Sigur Rós — 'Varðeldur' (2012)
18)  David Sylvian — 'Darkest Dreaming' (1999)


1 comment:

Helena Fairfax said...

Hi, I read your review and loved it, and have posted a link to it on my own blog. You can read what I say here, although you may be surprised at the context of my review!
I also loved your accompanying mix tape - what a fabulous idea!