Review of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (translated by Bill Johnston)

It’s as hard to characterize Solaris the novel as it is to characterize the eponymous planet. Undoubtedly it’s science-fiction, but there’s no heroic quest, no triumph, and certainly no light-saber battles or little green men. The planet Solaris forces characters to question what it means to be human, thus the novel forces readers to do so as well. In that sense, Solaris is literature.

Here’s one thematic passage:

“We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. One world is enough, even there we feel stifled. We desire to find our own idealized image; they’re supposed to be globes, civilizations more perfect than ours; in other worlds we expect to find the image of our own primitive past. Yet on the other side there’s something we refuse to accept, that we fend off; though after all, from Earth we didn’t bring merely a distillation of virtues, the heroic figure of Humankind! We came here as we truly are, and when the other side shows us that truth—the part of it we pass over in silence—we’re unable to come to terms with it!”

Five Stars
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Beware SPOILERS below.

Solaris: Theme

Can we communicate with or understand something truly alien? Of course not! All we can do is anthropomorphize.

Contact means an exchange of experiences, concepts, or at least results, conditions. But what if there’s nothing to exchange? If an elephant isn’t a very large bacterium, then an ocean can’t be a very large brain.

“They’re wandering around in a library of books written in an unknown language, and just looking at the colors of the spines.”

The entire search for signs of a conscious will, for a teleology of processes, for activity motivated by the ocean’s inner needs, was almost universally acknowledged to have been an aberration on the part of a whole generation of researchers.

Solaris: Setting

Solaris is such a mysterious and enchanting place that one can hardly blame Steven Soderbergh for setting a love story there, even though he made it look completely different.

The vast blackness of the ocean and the empty sky above it were then filled with a blindingly fierce clash between hard colors aglow like metal, glistening with poisonous green and subdued hollow flames of crimson, while the ocean itself was rent with the glare of two counterposed disks, two furious fires, one mercuric and one scarlet; at such moments it was enough for the tiniest cloud to be at the zenith for the rays falling across the diagonals of waves with their lumbering foam to be lit up with an incredible rainbow glitter.

Solaris: Character

Kris Kelvin is the ultimate expat. He is so changed by his experiences away from home that he can never return.

But I had no home. Earth? I thought about its great crowded buzzing cities, in which I would become lost, almost effaced, as if I’d gone through with what I wanted to do that second or third night—thrown myself into the ocean where it rocked sluggishly in the darkness. I’d drown in people. I’d be a reticent, observant, and therefore valued, companion, I’d have many acquaintances, friends even, and women, maybe even one woman. For some time I’d have to force myself to smile, say hello, get to my feet, perform a thousand trivial actions from which life on Earth is composed, till I stopped being aware of them. I’d find new interests, new pastimes, but I wouldn’t give myself over to them completely. Not to anything or anyone, ever again.

Solaris: Plot

The events of Solaris are less important than characters’ and readers’ analysis of them.

Kelvin arrives on a research station hovering over the ocean surface of Solaris. The station is run down and almost abandoned. Kelvin’s friend Gibarian has recently committed suicide, so there are now only two scientists aboard. However, it turns out that there are other entities present as well, one mysterious “guest” for each human. After Kelvin’s first night on the station, his own guest appears. It is Harey, a woman he loved who committed suicide. Knowing she cannot be who she seems, Kelvin dispatches her in a rocket. However, a new copy appears to replace her after Kelvin sleeps again.

We learn about the long history of Solaristics, the study of Solaris, and the inability of hordes of researchers to make any headway whatsoever in actually understanding the planet. Sartorius, who is always hiding in the lab, is working on a method for ending the lives of the seemingly immortal guests, which he calls “g-formations”. Kelvin comes to love his copy of Harey, however, and she matures into a being with some self-knowledge and possibly even free will.

Kelvin decides that the planet doesn’t think or want or act like a person, that researchers were barking up the wrong tree, if barking could even be considered any use in such a case. Sartorius succeeds in inventing a machine that can permanently destroy the guests. Harey sneaks away and lets him use it on her. Kelvin, bereft, decides to remain on the station because he cherishes the memories of the time he spent with Harey there, because no one back on Earth would understand or believe him, and because he’s curious what Solaris will do next.

Versions of Solaris

The dominant English version of Solaris (translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox in 1970) is based on a Polish-to-French translation. Some have found this translation to be flawed.

According to this Guardian article, as of 2011, there is a “better” version translated directly from Polish to English (by Bill Johnston) available only as an ebook. (That’s the version I read.)

There is a 1972 film adaptation of Solaris by acclaimed director Andrei Tarkovsky. Although it’s two hours and forty-six minutes and in Russian, it has a devoted following.

Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film adaptation of Solaris bears little resemblance to the novel or the earlier film. It’s a love story set against a beautiful outer-space backdrop, and worth watching on its own merits.

When and Why I Read Solaris

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for September 2018.

Genre: science-fiction
Date started / date finished:  27-Aug-18 to 29-Aug-18
Length: 224 pages
Originally published in: 1961/2011/2014
Amazon link: Solaris