My life in outer space

Solaris – Stanislaw Lem (1961)

Solaris

‘A SENTIENT OCEAN
Was the ruling intelligence of Solaris. Its vast mind and enigmatic personality exerted a powerful force on those humans who contacted it. And to Kris Kelvin, a galactic researcher from Earth, it had presented a strange and awesome gift…’

Blurb from the Berkley Medallion 1971 paperback edition.

Polish writer Lem’s most famous work, although only recently has his writing been widely available in Europe and the US.
For a relatively short novel it covers a lot of ground thematically, symbolically and stylistically.
The planet Solaris is a mystery. An enigmatic, possibly sentient, ocean covers nearly all of its surface. Despite seventy-eight years of scientific surveys, explorations and tests, Humanity is no closer to understanding what the living ocean of Solaris actually is, and all attempts at communication have failed.
Kelvin, a psychologist and student of Solaristic studies is posted to the scientific station which hovers just above the surface of Solaris, only to find his old tutor and friend, Gibarian, dead from recent suicide and the two other scientists, Snow and Sartorius, behaving oddly and irrationally.
It transpires that after an attempt to beam x-rays into the surface of the ocean, ‘Visitors’ have begun manifesting, something which Kelvin soon discovers. At first he sees a naked black woman roaming the station and the next day he awakens to find his dead girlfriend (for whose suicide Kelvin blames himself) alive and well but with no memory of how she got to the station or indeed, her previous death.
The other scientists have their own visitors, people apparently assembled by Solaris from details dredged from their subconscious; their feelings of guilt or shameful desire.
The others, intriguingly, keep their doppelgangers hidden, although it would seem that the simulacrum assigned to Sartorius is a young child in a straw hat. The creatures do not allow their respective scientists out of their sight and the three devise various means of ridding themselves of their shadows.
It’s a story which moves from mood to mood, in some sections slightly humourous, as when Lem provides ironic and satirical reports on Solarist scientific debates, making telling points about the politics of science itself, made all the more absurd by the very fact that ultimately all their theories about the ocean and their attempts to communicate with it in any way have come to nothing.

’A comparison of the ‘contact’ school of thought with other branches of Solarist studies, in which specialisation had rapidly developed, especially during the last quarter of a century, made it clear that a Solarist cybernetician had difficulty in making himself understood to a Solarist-symmetriadologist. Veubeke, director of the Institute when I was studying there, had asked jokingly one day: ‘How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?’ The jest contained more than a grain of truth.’ (p 28)

This theme of communication is central to the novel. The initial chapter in which Kelvin arrives on the station is full of instances of communication failing or going awry. The station scientists’ ability to communicate even with each other is hampered, both by the presence of their visitors and by the deleterious effect that the creatures are having upon them.
The point that Lem makes, in various ways, is that Mankind is not ready for contact with other intelligent life. Humans have so much trouble communicating amongst themselves that there seems little point in attempting communication with another species.
Kelvin cannot come to terms with the presence of a replica of his dead lover or the reality of her being an alien construct, and ultimately fails to communicate properly even with her. The only solution – the human solution – is to destroy the doppelgangers rather than attempt to study or communicate with Solaris through them.
Structurally, Solaris is told in first person narrative by Kris Kelvin, whose reading of various books and reports gives us an overview and history of Solaris and the seventy-eight years of almost fruitless scientific investigation.
The living ocean itself is masterfully depicted in a mixture of scientific precision and poetic metaphor. Lem makes it a truly alien unknowable phenomenon.
Could Solaris itself be a metaphor for the unconscious, an area we seek to explore but with which we can never enter a dialogue.
Some things remain a mystery. Who/what was Snow’s visitor? What was the secret shame that produced a child in a straw hat from Sartorius’ subconscious?
I have read some criticisms which suggest that Kris Kelvin’s reading amounts to ‘info-dumping’ but I don’t see that as the case. Lem uses the opportunity here and there to lighten the mood while supplying critical commentary on the scientific establishment and obliquely, I suspect, the Science Fiction establishment.
The scientists fail to even begin to understand Solaris because they are thinking of it in human terms. There is an entrenched anthropomorphism in the field of Solaristics as indeed, to a certain extent, there is in SF literature in general. SF seldom deals with the truly alien (or the enigmatic alien as I choose to term it). This is particularly true of contemporary SF films and TV series which invariably feature humanoid aliens so like ourselves they are socially indistinguishable from Human cultures. This is, to a degree, the case with some SF Literature of the Twentieth century. Lem himself was critical of Western SF at one time, criticisms which prompted a strongly worded letter to the SFWA from none other than Philip K Dick.
Solaris is a novel that any serious student of Science Fiction needs to read, but more importantly, it’s a novel that any student of 20th Century literature should be reading.
Patrick Parrinder, in his scholarly discourse on Solaris in ‘Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching’ sees Solaris as one of the few SF novels to combine the four generic components of Romance, Fable, Epic and Parody.

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