A 40-year old man is wandering round a huge station unable to find his way out. He’s becoming increasingly disorientated among the endless escalators, passages and moving walkways, bewildered by the flashing signs that mean nothing to him. He’s a big man and strong, well used to taking care of himself, yet he’s beginning to panic. He asks passers-by for directions but their answer is so full of jargon that they might as well speak a foreign language. All he wants is to get out of this station and be in the street, under the open sky. His name is Hal Bregg, he’s an astronaut and he has just returned from a ten-year long voyage – but a hundred and twenty-seven years passed on Earth while he was away.
This is how the book titled Return from the Stars by the Polish science-fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem opens. The scene which is told like an inner monologue of the (at this point) unknown character leaves you feeling, clearly intentionally, as bewildered and lost as Bregg himself.
When I first read this book as a teenager, it didn’t mean much. But I read it again in the early days after my move to England and it suddenly made sense at a deep and personal level beyond my power of words to describe; it hurt. Sometimes you just have to live through something to be able to understand it: albeit to a lesser degree, I lived the same kind of disoriented life then that the astronaut was living on his return. I too was deprived of the familiar and surrounded by the strange, I too felt like an idiot for not knowing how to do basic things, I too suffered from the complete lack of social network – everybody he’d ever known was dead; everybody I’d ever known was more than a thousand miles away. I had learned a new phrase then: culture shock. It’s easy to understand why Bregg suffers from culture shock in the novel but I had never even heard of the phrase before, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have expected it to happen to me, moving simply from one European country to another. After all, I could speak the language of my new country fluently and I knew more about the history and the literature of the country than many of the natives; but none of that saved me from culture shock, none of that helped when I couldn’t figure out how to turn the shower on (with a string two metres away) or when I looked the wrong way crossing the road.
Reading the book stirred up emotions I didn’t know I had and then it made sense of them. The Ancient Greeks had a word to describe this experience: catharsis, purification. You experience catharsis when the power of a work of literature releases strong emotions in you, so that you emerge with a heightened understanding of yourself and of life and – hopefully – become a better person.
There’s more to Return from the Stars than the astronaut’s culture shock of course. As Bregg attempts to come to grips with his new life, he confronts a society that, depending on your personal point of view, is either a utopia or a dystopia. It is a society without aggression; consequently it’s also a society that avoids risk at all cost. To the astronaut used to the harsh realities of unforgiving space, this is all wrong. The people of this new age perceive Bregg almost as a cave man: brutal and lacking finesse. To him, on the other hand, these people lack oomph; they’re without the ability to make decisions, to accept pain as part of life, to dare trying something new. A tantalising question needs answering: Was it worth it? And should it be done again?
“What did Starck prove to you — the futility of cosmodromia? As if we did not know that ourselves! And the poles! What was at the poles? Those who conquered them knew that there was nothing there. And the Moon? What did Ross’s group seek in the crater Eratosthenes? Diamonds? … Don’t you know what Starck is really saying? That a human being must eat, drink, and clothe himself; and the rest is madness. Every man has his Starck, Bregg. Every period in history has had one… The study of the stars. Bregg, do you think we wouldn’t have gone if there had been no stars? I say we would have. We would have wanted to examine that emptiness, to provide an explanation for it… Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that the stars are only an excuse. Neither was the pole; Nansen and Andree needed it… Everest meant more to Mallory and Irving than the air itself.”