You can't go home again. Thomas Wolfe told us that. But we still keep trying. The spirit of exploration that sent us out in search of new worlds sends us back to explore the old one. When we return we expect that home will want to explore the new world in us. That's all Hal Bregg asked of Earth when he came back after 127 years.
Bregg, the narrator in Stanislaw Lem's "Return From the Stars," is one of 12 men who left Earth for Arcturus on a scientific research mission. He is one of eight who return. They are physically only 10 years older than when they left Earth, but they have returned to a society nearly a century and a half ahead of the world they left behind.
At first society's transformations seem a tribute to the progress humankind has made during Bregg's absence. All the necessities of life are available free of charge. Technology does all the dirty work -- robots outnumber humans 18 to 1. Gravitational engineering has produced "little black boxes" that emit a "gravitational antifield" which has the effect of preventing death or injury by collison, falling, and similar accidents. Yet something is missing in this brave new world. And Bregg and his fellow explorers are unwelcome reminders of this missing element.
The very drive which caused Bregg and his comrades to venture out to the edges of the universe has been carefully, benevolently, chemically tabooed. No one on earth can now be driven to risk life or to take it. A chemical process -- ritually administered at birth -- eliminates aggression in humans and animals.
Return to Earth's future is one of the tastier plots among science fiction favorites. Lem serves his version with an original twist. He tracks Bregg's Rip van Winkle wanderings in the technological landscape with care. There is almost too much futuristic backdrop for the length of the book. But more engaging are Bregg's mental wanderings -- his conversations with himself as he tries to sleuth out the cause for the fear he invokes in most people he meets, the missing ingredient in society, and the changed view he begins to have about the mission in which he risked his own and other lives.
On his voyage he lived with persistent wonder and surprise in outer space. Now he yearns to find some of the old familiar ground rules. He has some charming chats with robots. He prefers them to humans, who are easily shocked by a space man. He tries out several women friends -- they confuse, exploit, or reject him. When one does love him, there is nothing recognizable about the love except sex. He finds himself growing away from his closest friend from the mission. In desperation, he begins to ask: Was it worth it, worth going to the stars if you can't come home?
Lem gives us a touching human dilemma in a future setting. But he doesn't take us deep enough into the futurist dilemma of his humans. He keeps dropping hints about the sinister elements in this world. There are the all-too-human robots in the scrap heap; the psychologist who appears unannounced from the reorientation center to help Bregg "adapt"; his discovery that while humans can't kill, robots can and do. Yet this Polish writer never really exposes or develops the powers behind these events. There is an aroma of intrigue, without the satisfaction of rising and resolved suspense.
One has the feeling Bregg is up against forces more frightening than backward village folk rejecting a local who has returned too citified. If Lem had pulled these forces more to the center of his story, he might have put a new light on coming home to the global village.