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Book Review: Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

Humans encounter a planet-sized alien intelligence in this philosophical Polish sci-fi classic.


Solaris

Audible Frontiers, 1961 (new English translation: 2011), 204 pages



At last, one of the world’s greatest works of science fiction is available - just as author Stanislaw Lem intended it.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Solaris, Audible, in cooperation with the Lem Estate, has commissioned a brand-new translation - complete for the first time, and the first ever directly from the original Polish to English. Beautifully narrated by Alessandro Juliani (Battlestar Galactica), Lem’s provocative novel comes alive for a new generation.

In Solaris, Kris Kelvin arrives on an orbiting research station to study the remarkable ocean that covers the planet’s surface. But his fellow scientists appear to be losing their grip on reality, plagued by physical manifestations of their repressed memories. When Kelvin’s long-dead wife suddenly reappears, he is forced to confront the pain of his past - while living a future that never was. Can Kelvin unlock the mystery of Solaris? Does he even want to?




Solaris is one of the few science fiction novels to be included on the 1001 Books Everyone Must Read Before You Die list. Written in Polish in 1961, for decades the only English edition has been one that was translated from Polish to French then from French to English. Stanislaw Lem is said to have never been happy with this translation, and last year, Audible.com produced a new edition, translated directly from Polish to English and read by Alessandro "Felix Gaeta" Juliani. An ebook version is now available as well.

This was my first encounter with Lem's novel. It falls into that category of "intelligent science fiction" that some sci-fi fans find insulting (implying that most science fiction is stupid), but it's a novel that takes full advantage of the possibilities available in a science fiction setting to explore philosophical and psychological questions. It's definitely a book to make you think; it's also lacking much in the way of action or plot.

Solaris is a giant ocean-covered planet which has been studied by scientists for decades, ever since it was discovered that the "ocean" was actually a single vast organism. Its movements are not guided by wind and tides but by some form of sentience. It can form enormous constructs, some resembling cities, some taking incredibly strange forms, which humans have studied, explored, and often died in as the constructs suddenly collapse and dissolve back into the ocean. Schools of "Solaricists" have developed many competing theories about the nature of the planet, including whether or not it is intelligent, but it remains mostly a mystery.

The main character, Kris Kelvin, is a psychologist sent to Solaris to join the small crew aboard the planet's research station. Upon arrival, he finds one crew member is recently dead, and the rest appear to be going insane. Not long thereafter, his wife Harey shows up on the station. Problem being, his wife committed suicide before he left Earth, when he ended their marriage.

Kelvin soon learns that everyone else on the station has "visitors" manifesting from their guilty consciences as well. When he tries to get rid of "Harey" (by tricking her into a space probe and launching her into space, which, yes, is kind of fucked up when you think about it), she comes back again. The visitors can die (or be killed), but they are always resurrected.

Harey, however, is not just a corporeal ghost or a psychological projection generated by Solaris. She is sentient and self-aware, which becomes evident when she figures out that she is not the "real" Harey, and questions her own nature and her existence just as Kelvin does.

Ultimately, what Harey and the other visitors represent is not the point of the novel, and there is no real answer. Solaris is one of those novels that college students are assigned to write essays about in those "cool" literature classes that include some science fiction in the curriculum. Is it about the impossibility of communicating with an alien intelligence? About the nature of memory, guilt, and consciousness? Is it about trying to comprehend the unknowable? The characters talk about a lot of these things, or rather, Kelvin talks to himself about a lot of these things. He also spends a lot of time in the station's library so that Lem can treat us to long narrative descriptions of the history of Solaris and various Solaristic theories and schools of thought, as well as describing the different types of formations the planet creates on its surface, such as "mimoids," "symmetriads," and "asymmetriads."

Solaris is of course a Big Dumb Object novel, of the sort that was very popular from the 1960s through the 1980s. Like most of these books, you have puny humans crawling around on a vast alien artifact/object/planet that they don't really understand, searching for revelations, and mostly divulging their own inadequacies. Also like most of these books, the human characters are little more than props and thus their fate is hardly significant to the reader.

As a work of pure science fiction, Solaris is quite clever and is very deliberately aiming for depth. It's certainly worth reading. However, it's not exactly a page-turner, and there is no climax because what suspense there is is mostly internal.

I do recommend visiting the Solaripedia though, particularly the Planetary Activity page, which has some cool concept art portraying the various planetary formations on Solaris.

Great movies for those who find 2001: A Space Odyssey to be too much of a fast-paced thriller



Solaris (1972)



Solaris (1972)

The first film version of Solaris was a 1972 Russian film by legendary Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. It's over two and a half hours long, much of it taken up by long scenes of nothing happening. Seriously, there's one scene that's just Kelvin driving through a city, without any dialog whatsoever, for like five minutes.

The science fictional aspects are represented almost entirely on an intellectual level. (I'm guessing in Russia in 1972 there was not a lot of money for special effects.) We're told it happens on another planet, but the Solaris shots are very brief and low-budget. That said, the filmmaking itself is quite good; very artistic with long, contemplative shots, actors who are given plenty of time to drag out their lines while letting complex interplays of emotion show on their faces, etc.

You definitely need a lot of patience to sit through this film and pay attention enough to catch all the subtleties Tarkovsky was trying to throw at you. It's pretty much what you'd expect from a long, artsy 1970s Soviet science fiction film, namely, something only a serious film student could love.

Solaris (2002)



Solaris (2002)

The 2002 Hollywood remake, on the other hand, manages to be just as boring in half the time. A 40-year-old George Clooney flaunts the waning days of his sexy years, hence there is a lot of naked Clooney buttage. Maybe this is enough reason to see the movie for some people, but alas, George Clooney's butt does nothing for me, and neither did Steven Soderbergh's movie. Oh, it's got flashes of the original novel's intelligence, and it's not as self-indulgent as the Tarkovsky film, but like Tarkovsky's version, it jettisons most of the science fiction element and hence the planetary mystery in order to focus on Kelvin's relationship with his "resurrected" wife and his psychological issues. I would say it's a film worth seeing, but not a film worth rewatching, whereas someday if I have a lot of time and I'm really, really bored, I might rewatch the Tarkovsky version just to pick up on little nuances I missed the first time.



Verdict: If you like the conjunction of philosophy + psychology + science fiction, and especially if you like Big Dumb Object SF where you get many questions but few answers, then Solaris is the best example of its kind. A thoughtful but very slow-paced novel, one that deserves its literary credibility, but it's easy to see why it's not exactly a genre favorite. Without the trippiness of Heinlein, the science-and-tech wizardry of Asimov, or the engineering geekery of Clarke, it's still a good read for aficionados of classic sci-fi.




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Tags: books, books1001, movies, netflix, reviews, science fiction
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