We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore.
I love book quotes, but I think in this case it might be self-defeating, or give away too much of the main point. In any case. Stanisław Lem is one of the few Eastern European SF authors who was acclaimed and lauded enough to have most, if not all, of his works published in English. Yet he was also a divisive figure back in the day; commenting that SF “is a whore” that “prostitutes itself… with discomfort, disgust, and contrary to its dreams and hopes” got his honorary SFWA membership revoked. Philip K. Dick thought he was a communist agent, and wrote the FBI on the subject. (Then again, this was around the time Dick started to receive spiritual visionary experiences.)
Lem’s most famous novel, Solaris, was filmed twice—once by the Soviets in 1972, and once by Americans in 2002—yet neither of those matched Lem’s high expectations. And the primary American edition of the book, dating back to 1970 and still in circulation, is a translation Lem hated: an English translation of a French translation of an abridged Polish edition (wow, who knew Poland had Ace Doubles?). I can’t say as I blame him. But Solaris has attained “classic” status despite its lacking translation, and Lem has been enshrined as a visionary in the science fiction field.
Mankind has reached the greatest philosophical question of the ages: upon discovering Solaris, a planetary ocean which displays confusing signs of sentience, human scientists stumble over themselves to come up with a way to communicate with the planet, working out hurried theories for Solaris’s reasoning and methods. All have failed, and after some past disasters, the floating research station is limited to a skeleton crew of a handful of scientists. These scientists are left to try and contact the ocean, to try and rationalize what it is and how it thinks, to catalog the strange and complex phenomena generated by the ocean which defy both classification and nomenclature.
Scientist Kris Kelvin arrives to find the Solaris station in shambles; Kelvin’s scientist friend on the station had killed himself days before, and the other two scientists are detached and paranoid, not performing their assigned duties. Things become more complex and confusing to Kelvin when he sees the “phantoms”—human simulacra dug out from repressed and buried memories by the ocean and given physical form. Kelvin’s “phantom” is his dead wife Rheya, who committed suicide years ago when she was 19. Kelvin still blames himself for her death, thinking his carelessness drove her to do it, and is mortified to find an amnesiac copy of Rheya trying to continue on the life she led.
Lem has carefully balanced the book between traditional SF fare and deep psychological discourse. The narrative adapts a tense atmosphere, with looming fear, brief moments of horror, and plenty of unexplained—and unexpected—developments wearing at Kelvin’s sanity. But it’s the philosophical pondering that Lem’s most interested in, and I can tell from the sheer depth he puts into it. The novel builds up to one crucial point, with everything reflecting off one central idea: can we hope to understand the alien other without first understanding ourselves? Unlike most aliens, the planet is neither understandable nor comprehensible, and the physical strain—and psychological stimulation—it puts forth are intense. Think of it as Jean-Paul Sartre in space, a cunning philosophical experiment in existentialist thought.
That said, it’s also a love novel, though not to the same degree as the two film editions would let you believe. The
reincarnation—the phantom of Rheya wears at Kelvin’s nerves; such a thing should not be, but is, and he struggles to keep calm and hide his disgust. Disgust both at the inexplicable thing imitating his original love, and disgust at himself for the way he treated the original. Yet he begins to fall in love with the new, Solaris-spawned Rheya; his infatuation and protectiveness becomes a source of conflict. Even as his relationship with her is rife with tension, its underlying foundation built on lies, fear, and misguided hope, you see him becoming attached to her, or perhaps, it. This is a bittersweet train-wreck of a relationship, with both characters tortured by the mere existence of the other, for reasons beyond their comprehension.
Where the novel misfires is with Lem’s infrequent information dumps. Right after a masterful first chapter, leaving off on some brilliant hooks, we get a long, dry history of the planet and its researchers; not a huge problem, since it’s done early enough in the book to get the info across but before the narrative has taken off. Then, at the halfway mark, Lem dives into another long, dull chapter attempting to define the planet’s environment—strange shapes and phenomena that defy description. And he does it again, near the end, as Kelvin once again dives into the library and recount large swaths of information as he peruses history books. These occasional stutters mar the book with languid pacing and too much of a technical focus; while interesting, they’re not as important as whatever else is happening at the time.
Yet, at other points, Lem’s beautiful prose rife with poetic imagery manages to defy two translations; his sense of action and tension are never questionable, and his pacing—and philosophical insight—is sublime. The novel keeps you thinking at all times, questioning Rheya’s reality, wondering the phantoms’ purpose, watching the devastation they level on Kelvin as he struggles to answer those questions. Plus, the guy has to deal with his memory of Rheya: is there be love after life, can he start anew? But they’re not questions with easy answers—even the one Kelvin comes up with at the end of the novel is complex and open-ended—and the questions themselves forecast a bleak outcome from the beginning.
Solaris is a classic for a damn good reason; this is the kind of book every serious SF fan should put on their reading list. Granted, it’s a slow and steady “thinker” that necessitates more introspection than your average SF fare; its inaccessibility and philosophical lack of clarity might be a turn-off for too many people. And Lem’s over-loaded sections of technical exposition stifle the emotional impact the novel builds… though, luckily, it picks up the pieces and begins building again as soon as the exposition concludes. But I think science fiction is the perfect ground for philosophical, psychological experiments like this one, and the novel is an amazing success on that front. Solaris is a transcendent vision of sweeping scope and scale, and I feel anything I have to say about the novel pales in comparison.