Saturday, June 11, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Revert to Eventuality

So do you think this was intended to be a happy ending?  We closed the book with the Hound more or less flying off into the sunset while Corday was presumably banging Snoozer in the captain's cabin after fulfilling his destiny as a timelost guardian of mankind.  But there was no indication he was very happy with any of this, and the road he took to reach that point wasn't that enjoyable either.  Maybe the story is meant to be seen as a vicious cycle, with naive young victims growing into bitter, experienced spacemen who eventually replace the previous generation of bitter, experienced spacemen, while spaceships travel the same circuit between worlds, watching human civilization change around them but never improve, even as the crew itself is (relativistically) ageless.

Or maybe we're meant to view this tale as a noble sacrifice, a story about someone who (without his consent) casts his life away to serve humanity as one of its forgotten guardians, someone who battles the horrors waiting among the stars so they'll be safe for habitation, because no one else will.  But if that is the point, then it's a little strange that we only heard about this "crusade" six pages before the end of the story.  I think that's because of the main problem with Return to Tomorrow.  Well, a main problem.

There's two big issues with Return to Tomorrow's underlying scenario.  The first is the math - Hubbard wants to tell us a story about time dilation, a phenomenon we've got all sort of equations for, and he even includes some in the book.  So you'd think this would be "hard" sci-fi, something based on known or theoretical science and cold, hard facts, except Hubbard's numbers don't add up.  He thinks a spaceship can make it to Alpha Centauri in a matter of weeks, while the fact of the matter is that even when traveling at lightspeed, it would take over four years to travel from Earth to our nearest stellar neighbor.  So in a story where there's drama over the immutability of the laws of physics, he accidentally breaks them.

If we just shrug at this, and say that the exact amount of time the Hound spent flying through space, and how much time passed on Earth while it was doing so, aren't as important as the fact that these values would be different... well, Return to Tomorrow still falls short.  Its conclusion is that relativity sucks and it's hard to fit in when you're temporally out of step with the rest of society, something that is both pointed out as early as the book's prologue and not actually specific to the story being told.  We could say the same thing about a tale involving cryogenics or a time machine mishap, or even a long coma.

It's also not a theme that can really be stretched out to fill seventeen chapters, and I think Hubbard realized this about halfway through the novel.  The drama of Corday skipping ahead several decades is fully explored in Chapters IX and X, around the book's middle.  The main story climaxes too early, so Hubbard has to figure out what to do with the rest of the book, and introduces conflicts with aliens and hostile humans to try and keep the reader's attention.  Then at the very end there's the whole "crusade of the long passage" angle that tries to insist that there's some greater purpose to all this flying through space, but like I complained last time, there's not much in the story to support the idea that the Hound is some defender of humanity, aside from one chapter in which its crew murders some less-advanced aliens.  So this attempt to tie the book together feels tacked-on and ineffectual.

Still, it's better than the alternative.  Throughout the story we're given reason after reason why this sort of interstellar commerce is unfeasible, from difficulties finding a buyer for a load of cargo to the ennui of the traders who find that all the gold in the galaxy can't buy them a place to call home.  Even the characters in Return to Tomorrow struggle to find a point to their existence, but of course cannot stop because then the book would too.  So if nothing else, Jocelyn's bogus "crusade" keeps the story from getting bogged down in nihilism and lets it end on a triumphant, if forced, note.

Beyond these fundamental flaws, though, Return to Tomorrow isn't that bad.  Or perhaps I should say not as bad as some of Hubbard's other works.  Yes, there's only two characters in the story that are anywhere close to developed, and they still don't have a lot of depth to them.  Yes, the good guys are sworn to a higher purpose that excuses them breaking the rules and doing bad things to their fellow man.  Yes, genocide is once again presented as heroic.  And yes, there's wasted opportunities like that lost colony on Johnny's Landing that the author doesn't make the most of.  But...

Well, that's actually quite a few flaws, isn't it?

Okay, with these fundamental flaws and additional problems, Return to Tomorrow isn't that great.  But on the other hand, it doesn't have ridiculous action sequences or Mission Earth's objectionable content and pacing problems, so it looks good by comparison.  And even though it gets the math of space travel wrong, it does a decent job of exploring the obstacles to interstellar commerce, and the pain of coming home to someone who aged several decades while you were gone for a few months.

And it's also a bit of a novelty.  Sci-fi stories like Star Trek are filled with a sense of adventure and an urge to explore the cosmos and see what wonders await out among the stars.  Return to Tomorrow makes you want to stay on your home planet, and not throw your life away for the sake of some treasure recovered from outer space.  Some speculative fiction explores what would happen if we could break through what is currently thought to be impossible.  Return to Tomorrow crushes both its characters and its reader with the immutability of those time equations.  Other works try to theorize what an interstellar civilization would look like.  Return to Tomorrow has human colonies that survive (or not) on their own, with no contact between them beyond insane traders who drop by every few centuries.

So there's not a lot to recommend about Return to Tomorrow, and plenty of room for improvement, but there's certainly worse ways to spend a few hours.  Pick just about any other L. Ron Hubbard novel, for example.

Back to Chapter XVII

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