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Literature / Return from the Stars

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I can't quite put my finger on it, but something seems to have changed ever since I've been here last time.
A 1961 Science Fiction novel by Stanisław Lem, Return From The Stars tells the story of Hal Bregg, an astronaut who, after completing a 10 years long exploratory mission, returns to Earth where - due to Time Dilation - 127 years have passed in the meanwhile. Of course, technology and society changed immensely in the meanwhile, and the arriving astronauts find themselves classic Fishes Out Of Temporal Water. Hal Bregg is one of the few who decides to integrate himself into modern society on his own instead of being subjected to a long preparatory (and propaganda-sprinkled) educational course.

The future Earth is borderline overwhelming for Bregg at first - if only due to the staggering changes in technology, everyday life and architecture, but what upsets him the most is the "betrization", a treatment given to all children that eliminates violent impulses, but also removes bravado and the courage necessary for risk-taking. The question of whether an utopia of safety and peace is worth sacrificing derring-do is but one of the book's themes.


This novel exhibits the following tropes:

  • Advert-Overloaded Future: Possibly, but Hal just can't understand the ads.
  • Alien Geometries: The first parts of the book, where Hal first steps onto the spaceship depot, are a confusing stream of consciousness because Hal is equally confused by the Bizarrchitecture surrounding him.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Somewhat confusing to the girls themselves, but women's reactions to Hal vary from uncontrollable fear (and still trying to come for more) to outright fawning.
  • Alone in a Crowd: Hal, due to his experience as an astronaut. Especially that the crowd comprises of people who find he very idea of going there and doing these things just unthinkable.
  • Challenge Seeker: Hal is distressed when he finds out that space missions are considered pointless in the future - and he finds the arguments for that persuasive. At the end of the book, a fellow astronaut argues that their mission was never intended to have any practical purpose - it was done for the challenge.
    What can one get from the stars? And of what use was Amundsen's expedition? Or Andree's? None. The only clear benefit lay in the fact that they had proved a possibility. That it could be done. Or, more precisely, that it was, for a given time, the most difficult attainable thing.
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  • Cold Sleep, Cold Future: Astronauts who have completed a century-long interstellar exploration mission return to an Earth where violence and risk-taking is so foreign to the population that the returning astronauts are seen as relics of the past at best, weird alien beings at worst.
  • Crapsaccharine World: A deconstruction deconstruction (or possibly an Unbuilt Trope, Lem being mostly unfamiliar with contemporary SF when he wrote the novel.) Yes, all the dirty jobs are done by robots, everyone is prosperous and, above all, safe. But the downside to this is - everyone is safe. Nothing you do matters. Hal goes to a carnival with a very realistic simulation where you can "fall" into a "ravine". He instinctively catches a fellow passenger, slips and is very embarrassed when he learns this is just a simulation. The woman, who turns out to be an actress, tells him she could get him a role, because nobody can act like this anymore.
  • Credit Chip: The standard method of paying. You get a hand-held device to make Credit Chips of any denomination you like, connected to your bank account.
  • Fantasy Contraception: Having children is restricted, so this is necessary, but not discussed in detail.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Hal and his colleagues. Some of them get to work organising another expedition.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: Probably. Either that, or it's processed in some novel ways, since Hal can't for the life of him recognize most foods and resorts to a mixture of careful observation and "I'll have what she's having" to avoid embarrassing himself and/or Alien Lunch.
  • Future Imperfect: Sort of. Hal goes to see a theatre play set in the past (his own times), and comments on how wrong they got the customs and clothes.
  • Future Slang: A little, mostly naming things that didn't exist in Hal's time and he has no idea what they are. So he wings it. For example, the first person he meets spots a "bons" place and asks if he wants one, so he answers "Do you want one?". The "bons" turn out to be snacks somewhat, but not entirely, unlike crepes and after his first bite Hal decides he's going to like them.
  • Futuristic Superhighway: Lots and lots. Multiple levels of those.
  • Genius Bruiser: Hal, a former astronaut with Heroic Build who taught himself higher mathematics during the boring parts of the flight, because it was difficult, thus interesting.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Hal pretty much steals his fellow vacationer's wife. It may be even contrary to her will, or maybe not - it's very confusing and complicated.
  • Holograms: There are holographic 3-D photos, as well as holographic theater plays.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Hal towers above pretty much everyone in the future, not to mention his hulking muscles, so he's a huge guy for every girl he has any interactions with.
  • Job-Stealing Robot: Nobody actually regards them this way, but all the jobs that involve risk, as well as many of those that are just repetitive and boring, and could cause risks if done badly, are done by robots.
  • Neon City: The future city is very colourful, filled with strange, incomprehensible architecture and rather overwhelming.
  • No New Fashions in the Future: Averted. Future clothes are not sewn - they are sprayed on as quickly solidifying foam (and one-use; you simply tear off your clothes when you're bored with them and spray on new ones). Clothes are skin-tight and usually sparkly.
  • Lobotomy: Hal finds out betrization is accomplished by dissolving parts of the prefrontal cortex with selectively acting enzymes. Basically, lobotomy without a scalpel.
  • No-Paper Future: Paper books are found only in antique shops. Instead, future books are recorded on Data Crystals and read on handheld devices (that very much resemble real-life e-book readers).
  • Prematurely Grey-Haired: Hal. Biologically he's about fourty, but he's been through things nobody around can even begin to imagine.
  • Post-Scarcity Economy: To an extent. While there's still money in the future, to be used for buying antiques, opulent things or renting vacation villas, the people Hal talks to seem confused as to why living would cost anything.
  • Restraining Bolt: The betrization treatment, as well as a drug that inhibits sex drive, customarily taken before a date.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Generally averted, because they make people feel uncomfortable, but sometimes used to staff passenger flights (the inperturably calm stewardess Hal saw might or might not have been one). Visiting a robot recycling facility Hal sees a store of malfunctioning robots and they act disturbingly like (not very sane) humans - including claiming they're people to be taken out of there...
  • Robot Maid: In the hotel and the villa there are robot butlers and waiters. Most shops are staffed by robots, as well.
  • Stupid Sacrifice: One of the most painful things about the future for Hal is that nobody goes on space missions anymore, because they decided they were pointless, ineffectual wastes of human life — meaning the cause to which Hal and his fellow crewmen dedicated ten years of their life, alienated themselves from society permanently, and some even sacrificed their lives to, is now considered worse than useless. Hal gets convinced, but some of his friends don't.
  • Time Dilation: Hal is hit with the realisation of how much time really had passed on Earth when he meets the son of one of the mission's theorists - then a lively, curious seven-year-old, now a decrepid old man.
  • Time Travel for Fun and Profit: Without actually moving back in time, but the protagonist and his crew have had bank accounts set up for them before they left, so now they can live comfortably from the interest.
  • Unusual User Interface: The infors, or terminals of the local Omniscient Database, resemble huge flowers. You put your face into them to get information. It may be considered symbolic that door knobs are obsolete.