Return from the Stars Summary
In its use of time dilation to separate its hero from the culture that produced him, Return from the Stars is a disguised time-travel story very much in the tradition of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine: An Invention (1895).
The central character, Hal Bregg, has been away from Earth on a journey to Arcturus for a mere 127 years, hardly an instant in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of years crossed by Wells’s time traveler, but Bregg experiences at least as acute a social disorientation. As a result of the relativistic time shifts associated with travel near the speed of light, Bregg has aged only ten years, but during his absence human civilization has undergone a transformation to passivity parallel to that which produced Wells’s race of Eloi. A process called Betrization has shorn humanity of its aggressions and, while rendering human beings incapable of intentionally killing or injuring one another, has also removed the urge for discovery that sent Bregg and his companions to the stars. The very technological progress that produced the star drive has tamed the human spirit and has also produced breakthroughs in robotics and parastatics, the latter a term indicating gravitation control that has provided humanity with an enslaving prosperity and protection from every potential bump and bruise.
Having refused more than token help from Adapt, the government agency intended to provide aid for returning space travelers, Bregg finds it nearly impossible to trace his way out of the spaceport where he has landed from Luna base. The vocabulary of the new world confuses him, and he finds the transportation system baffling. Once he discovers a bar, he makes the first of several human contacts that move him toward readjustment. With Nais, he learns for the first time of Betrization and becomes aware of the fear his nontransformation causes among his docile fellow humans. When Nais learns that Bregg has not undergone Betrization and is thus not susceptible to the calming properties of the “brit” she offers him almost ritualistically as he enters her apartment, she panics out of dread of what she falsely believes is her coming rape. Her helpless nonviolence is characteristic of most of the human race in the dystopian world into which Bregg has descended.
The next woman in Bregg’s life, Aen Aenis, reacts differently to the dangerous side of Bregg, inviting him home with her in full expectation of a sexual encounter with this muscular primitive. Ironically called a “realist” because she acts in the “reals,” Lem’s futuristic version of the cinema, she embodies the false glamour of the world of entertainment, and she provides Bregg with even less sense of substantial connection with the new world than had Nais.
Next is Eri, whose name suggests both Eros, the goddess of love and beauty, and Eris, the goddess of discord, deities whose combined natures, for the ancients, symbolized the dynamic totality of life. Bregg meets Eri while he is renting a villa on the sea, where he has come to rediscover his connections with earthly life. Having bought an automobile, an archaic machine long superseded by vehicles called “gleeds,” he enjoys the thrilling speed of the mechanism he associates with his past, but he also enjoys the more timeless life-restoring waters of his pool and the sea. He then discovers Eri, who, with her new husband, is sharing the villa. The cosmic adventurer and the young bride are soon drawn to each other and become involved in a sexual encounter, at once both innocent and deeply impassioned, which renews his faith in the essential goodness of humanity and his sense of engagement with the human race.
Before accepting that he is, in fact, now an inhabitant of the new Earth, however out of place he may feel in a world made safe and prosperous at the cost of human aspiration, Bregg attempts to resume friendships with his fellow space travelers. For a time, he and his former boon companion Olaf reestablish their camaraderie, largely through bloody but invigorating fisticuffs, but gradually they drift apart, with Olaf seeking sanctuary in a hoped-for return to the stars while Bregg maintains his ties to Eri and his home planet.
The final scenes of the novel symbolically recapitulate the struggles of Bregg’s life and underline the accommodation he has made with a disappointing future, but a future connected with the place of his roots. He climbs to a snowfield above his home valley, just as he had previously climbed to the stars, and looks down in mingled sadness and satisfaction, alone but not a stranger to Earth, on the scene below. Then, with light blazing above and shadows deepening below, he acts out the choice he has made, a choice between the stars and Earth, and descends in melancholy acceptance “to his home.”
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