Return from the Stars: The City of the Future

2bb02455f5bb878e1ca2ccb4faad2e2eReturn From the Stars — Hal Bregg has just returned to Earth after 127 years in space. Everything has changed. Bewildering public transportation systems moving impossibly fast, information points that take so much understanding for granted, they cease to be information points. Everyone is sedated through a process called betrization reducing all aggressive impulses — no one else will be going to the stars the way Bregg has. They use spray cans to put their clothing on. They love bright colours. They all seem a little bored. Their vocabulary has changed quite completely. It is utopia and also dystopia, a future of incredible technological advance, but something has been lost, has it not? So Bregg feels, so he is mistrusted by the bright, beautiful, youthful people around him.

The descriptions of this city of the future are pretty awesome, Bregg stares at the Terminal he has been fighting for hours to leave:

Was this still architecture, or mountain-building? They must have understood that in going beyond certain limits they had to abandon symmetry and regularity of form, and learn from what was largest–intelligent students of the planet!

I went around the lake. The colossus seemed to lead me with its motionless, luminous ascent. Yes, it took courage to design such a shape, to give it the cruelty of the precipice, the stubbornness and harshness of crags, peaks, but without falling into mechanical imitation, without losing anything, without falsifying. (45)

That’s the terminal from a park — these natural spaces are hardly used but found throughout, with ‘natural skies’ televised above them. This is the city:

Only now did I see–from the boulevard, down the center of which ran a double line of huge palms with leaves as pink as tongues–a panorama of the city. The buildings stood like islands, set apart, and here and there a spire soared to the heavens, a frozen jet of some liquid material, its height incredible. They were no doubt measured in whole kilometers. I knew — someone had told me back on Luna — that no one built them any more and that the rush to construct tall buildings had died a natural death soon after these had been put up. They were monuments to a particular architectural epoch, since, apart from their immensity, offset only by their slimness of form, there was nothing in them to appeal to the eye. They looked like pipes, brown and gold, black and white, transversely striped, or silver, serving to support or trap the clouds, and the landing pads that jutted out from them against the sky, hanging in the air on tubular supports, were reminiscent of bookshelves.

Much more attractive were the new buildings, without windows, so that all their walls could be decorated. The entire city took on the appearance of a gigantic art exhibit, a showcase for masters of color and form. I cannot say that I liked everything that adorned those twenty- and thirty-floor heights, but for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old character I was not, I dare say, overly stuffy. To my mind the most attractive were the buildings divided in half by gardens. Maybe they were not houses — the fact that the structures were cut in the middle and seemed to rest on cushions of air (the walls of those high-level gardens being of glass) gave an impression of lightness; at the same time pleasantly irregular belts of ruffled green cut across the edifices.

On the boulevards, along those lines of fleshlike palms, which I definitely did not like, flowed two rivers of black automobiles. I knew now that they were called gleeders. Above the buildings flew other machines, though not helicopters or planes; they looked like pencils sharpened at both ends. (54-55)

They still have cars, despite the flashing complexities of public transportation. The cars aren’t petrol based though. Nothing remains of what was, and Bregg is happy about that — no room for nostalgia here:

That nothing remained of the city that I had left behind me, not one stone upon another, was a good thing. As if I had been living, then, on a different Earth, among different men; that had begun and ended once and for all, and this was new. No relics, no ruins to cast doubt on my biological age… (88)

Funny, though, there is still immense wealth and it still lives in the suburbs:

We traveled a long time, in silence. The buildings of the city center gave way to bizarre forms of suburban architecture — under small artificial suns, immersed in vegetation, lay structures with flowing lines, or inflated into odd pillows, or winged, so that the division between the interior of a home and its surroundings was lost; these were products of a phantasmagoria, of tireless attempts to create without repeating old forms. The gleeder left the wide runway, shot through a darkened park, and came to rest by stairs folded like a cascade of glass; walking up them, I saw an orangery spread out beneath my feet.

The heavy gate opened soundlessly. A huge hall enclosed by a high gallery, pale pink shields of lamps neither supported nor suspended; in the sloping walls, windows that seemed to look out into a different space, (103)

Old racial constructs continue as well — this is a white world, and the only people of colour in it merit mention as in service to adventure fantasy — a kind of theme park where danger can be enjoyed through realistic holograms of an African river safari:

Although I had been prepared for a surprise, my jaw dropped. We were standing on the broad, sandy bank of a big river, under the burning rays of a tropical sun. The far bank of the river was overgrown with jungle. In the still backwaters were moored boats, or, rather, dugouts; against the background of the brownish-green river that flowed lazily behind them, immensely tall blacks stood frozen in hieratic poses, naked, gleaming with oil, covered with chalk-white tattoos; each leaned with his spatulate oar against the side of the boat.

One of the boats was just leaving, full; its black crew, with blows from the paddles and terrifying yells, was dispersing crocodiles that lay in the mud, half immersed, like logs; these turned over and weakly snapped their tooth-lined jaws as they slid into deeper water. The seven of us descended along the steep bank; the first four took places in the next boat. With visible effort the blacks set the oars against the shore and pushed the unsteady boat away, so that it turned around… (90)

Women, too, have forgotten how much they love raw emotion, desire, power plays, rape. Some, but not all of this confusion is evoked by this rather hilarious cover:

Return from the Stars

I confess, while Return From the Stars is one of the books that works best of Lem’s in terms of narrative and arc, it is one of the ones I have liked least apart from the imagined built environment of the future. The unnamed city is also in evidence in other versions of the cover, but I couldn’t find any other illustrations sadly…

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Return from the Stars

[Lem, Stanislaw. 1990 [1961]. Return From the Stars. London: Mandarin Paperbacks.] It doesn’t credit the translator! Bastards.

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