Lem at Amazon

Stanislaw Lem at Amazon

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Stanislaw Lem's novel Return from the Stars dates from 1961, the year of Solaris, and begins with precisely the same effect of mystery, of (in Darko Suvin's helpful phrase) estrangement. The plot is startlingly conventional: the hero returns from a faster-than-light journey of great hardship and danger to a world a century in his future; how will he cope? The opening chapters of this first-person narrative present the new world in a way that constantly breaks the norms of realism. You don't know where you are, as the hero doesn't; you perceive a world through it's baffled glimpses, distortions, inability to make sense. 'The girl, wearing a bright dress that was quite ordinary, which encouraged me, held a bouquet of pale pink flowers; nestling her face in them, she smiled at the boy with her eyes. At the moment I stood before them and was opening my mouth to speak, I saw that she was eating the flowers — and my voice failed me. She was calmly chewing the delicate petals.'

The known is constantly, jarringly, juxtaposed against the unknown: made strange. And it is not explained. Normally in the genre a helpful voice would now tell you that in fact she was eating the latest confectionery from Alpha Centauri, and the strange would become acceptable, realistic. Here, not. The reverse of this shock is also available: 'I kept going in the same direction. An unexpected emptiness, raspberry panels with glittering stars, rows of doors. The nearest was open. I looked in. A large, broadshouldered man looked in from the opposite side. Myself in a mirror. I opened the door wider. Porcelain, silver pipes, nickel. Toilets.' This is an uncomfortable tour de force, brilliant, uneasying, vertiginous. But what the book goes on to be about is a theme about which the realistic novel knows everything: romantic love. The hero realises that most of the strangeness of this world is because all impulse to violence has been removed from the inhabitants by drugs. They are completely peaceful, and he, and the 'courage' that sent him into space, are obscene. In the middle of this realisation he falls — violently, as we say — in love. Thus the two normal attributes of fictional heroes, a capacity for romantic love, and heroism, are foregrounded against this bizarre, pacified society, and examined as manifestations of violence.

So, while this future is a world turned upside down, we can live in it as readers because it reverses what we know well. And, knowing the central concerns — violence, love — so well, we can see them for another first time. This is a remarkable book: Astounding Science Fiction, one might say; but, since it is a love story, we know, somehow, where we are.

The Literary Review, Tom Davis