I think of Lem as the author of Solaris, and as such (because of the movies), I think of him as the writer of slow theme-heavy, deep-thinking science fiction, even though until now I had never read him. But the novel, as written here, fits within those preconceptions--perhaps, not quite as slow as the Solaris movies but certainly not heavy on plot.
Hal Bregg has returned from a mission into the nether regions of the galaxy, one that tried the limits of human ability (to become a pilot for the mission, he had to undergo a series of tests that involved severe isolation, including one in which an astronaut is left untethered and away from any spacecraft or station in a spacesuit in the middle of space for an undetermined amount of time; most men go crazy). As such, while he has aged only a few years (he's now in his forties), the earth he returns to has aged 150 years--and it is very different, so different that the return of those on his mission is barely mentioned in media reports. Technology has far outstripped Bregg's period, and interest in the stars has fallen by the wayside.
The first hundred pages or so of this book involve mostly Bregg's exploration of this new earth, a place that is a technological utopia. Cities are built on levels stretching to the sky, with television screens standing in for the outdoors. Gravity has been conquered, allowing crafts to be built that, even if they manage to crash, are perfectly suited to keeping anything inside from being damaged. Robots have taken over doing most daily tasks, leaving humans to relax or to oversee the overseeing robots. Life-time marriage has been replaced by temporal contracts that can be renewed for periods of time. But most important, man's baser instincts have been conquered through a medical procedure that removes aggression from the human body. There are no more wars, no more violent crimes--but neither is there much in the way of desire to explore other worlds or to accomplish feats no one else has ever achieved. Fear grips man as much as sheer apathy.
In this sense, Bregg is confronted with a different vision of life, one he does not initially like. Is the cost of conquering human passion worth the loss of that passion? What's more, what was the value of Bregg's journey to the stars if no one appreciates it now, and if technology itself has now made trips like Bregg's conceptually utterly easy to accomplish (even if no one has an interest in pursuing them)?
In time, Bregg meets up with a crew member for a little boxing match (boxing being an aggressive sport no one has any interest in now, other than those who have not gone through the medical procedure). He meets a woman for whom he develops quick feelings, and he marries her. And finally, he meets another old crew member and learns that in fact another trip to the stars is being planned. Will Bregg go?
The world has rubbed off on Bregg, and he's come to see exploration as pointless. But his faith in it seems to be somewhat restored by his old colleague, who denotes that man's need to explore is not based on what riches he will bring back from his voyage (did the antarctic explorers expect to find gold at the South Pole?) but on the need to accomplish grand feats and to know what is out there. Were the universe a big black blank instead of a place full of stars and alternate worlds, men would still go into the blackness to see what was there. And Bregg, taking a walk afterward, seems to recognize again that sense of wonder he had as a child.