Solaris: Can we communicate with an alien sentient ocean?

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSolaris by Stanislaw Lem Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris is an amazing little novel with a colorful history. First written in 1961 by Stanislaw Lem in Polish, it was then made into a two-part Russian TV series in 1968, before being made into a feature film by famous Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. It only reached English publication in 1970 in a Polish-to-French-to-English translation. And just when you thought it had faded from attention, both James Cameron and Steven Soderbergh expressed interest in doing a remake, with Soderbergh getting the nod in 2002 because Cameron was busy with other movies. Finally, a direct Polish-to-English translation by Bill Johnston was made available as an ebook and audiobook in 2011. In my case, I saw the Tarkovsky film back in 1995, watched the Soderbergh film in 2002, finally read the 1970 translation in 2013, and listened to the audiobook version in 2015.

Are the book and films worthy of all this attention? Absolutely. Lem was a well-respected author in the Soviet Union, and the 1972 Tarkovsky film became a surprise hit in Russia, playing continuously for 15 years in limited runs there. Many of Lem’s books are translated into English now, and he is well respected as a literary author interested in the nature of consciousness, human psychology, and attempts by man to understand himself and his surroundings. His relationship with the SF world is tenuous, as he preferred not to be associated with it despite his frequent use of SF tropes in his fiction.

In Solaris, the planet Solaris is covered by a single, massive ocean, and after its initial discovery scientists begin to observe unusual movements and formations in the ocean. In addition, careful calculations reveal that the planet’s orbit is not entirely stable, but that something on the planet is correcting the orbit. Entire schools of scientific and philosophic thought dedicated to studying the ocean develop over many decades and are dubbed Solaristics. The most brilliant part of the novel, and something that was completely cut from the films, is the meticulous and often humorous development of academic research on Solaris which begins with breathless excitement as scientists face the prospect of man’s first possible contact with extraterrestrial life, then splitting into various factions who make minute observations of the numerous and inscrutable formations of the ocean, which get categorized into “dendromountains,” “extensors,” “megamushrooms,” “mimoids,” “symmetriads,” “asymmetriads,” etc. The constant formations on the ocean’s surface offer tantalizing signs of intelligence and intent, but despite decades of study, their meaning is unclear. Over time, the various scholars despair of ever understanding Solaris or its ocean. Here are some telling passages:

I thought to myself that what we know about Solaris, all the knowledge that filled this library, was useless ballast, a mere quagmire of facts, and that we were in the same position as when we’d started to gather this information seventy-eighty years ago; in fact, the situation was a lot worse, since all the labors of those years had proved to be in vain.

In scientific circles the “case of Solaris” gradually began to sound like a lost cause, especially among the academic leadership of the Institute, where in recent years voices had been raised calling for cuts in future research funding. No one yet dared suggest closing the Station completely; this would be too overt an admission of failure.

For some time one popular view, eagerly disseminated by the press, was that the thinking ocean covering the whole of Solaris was a gigantic brain more advanced by millions of years than our own civilization, that is was some kind of “cosmic yogi,” a sage, omniscience incarnate, which had long ago grasped the futility of all action and for this reason was maintaining a categorical silence towards us.

Solaris centers on a small group of scientists on Solaris Station, a research station that revolves around the planet Solaris. It opens with psychologist Kris Kelvin arriving on Solaris Station to check on the three scientists stationed there. Nobody comes to greet him when he first arrives, and when he meets Snaut (Snow in the English version; it must sound better in Polish), the man is a psychological wreck, initially not believing Kelvin is real. Snaut refuses to explain what has happened on the station, which is in disarray, or why all the scientists are acting paranoid. He also reveals that Gibarian, whom Kelvin studied with at university, has committed suicide just that morning. The third scientist is Sartorius, who is so eccentric that he stays in his lab and refuses to come out and converse.

Lem builds his scenario carefully and quickly establishes the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the scientists operate, and throws Kelvin into the midst of this. Almost immediately, Kelvin realizes that the other scientists are encountering mysterious “guests” that appear on the station while they are sleeping. In each case, these “guests” appear to be generated from painful memories or secret desires buried deep in each person’s subconscious. Even more perplexing, the simulacra do not recognize their own natures, thinking themselves to be the original people, but lack memory of how they got to the station. Kelvin is not visited initially, but when he does receive a guest, it turns out to be his lost wife Harey (Rheya in the English version), who committed suicide after they had a fight. Suddenly Kelvin understands why the other scientists have been acting so strangely, but he discovers it is not easy to be rid of his “guest” when he tricks Rheya into a space pod and fires her into space, because the next morning she is back with no memory of the incident.

What follows is a philosophical and psychological drama that explores inner space, memories, consciousness, guilt, love, all the time with the inscrutable alien ocean impassively moving below. What is the purpose of these “guests,” which clearly come from the unconscious but have no knowledge of their origins, and don’t seem to be extensions of the ocean’s mind? Although the ocean is creating these simulacra from the scientists’ brain waves, it is not clear if it is doing this merely to study humans or to actually try to communicate with them. The story reaches a climax as the scientists decide to bombard the ocean with hard radiation in an attempt to generate some kind of response.

This theme of failed communication is brilliantly explored, and is in stark contrast to the vast majority of SF that posits that given the opportunity we can communicate with alien intelligences. How much of that is merely our anthropomorphic bias, clouding our judgment? For a truly alien consciousness, perhaps humans are nothing more than insignificant insects. And what does that do the giant egos of mankind’s brightest scientists? What could be more humiliating that making contact only to discover the Other was completely indifferent? Lem’s answers are far more cerebral and pessimistic than the simplistic aliens of Golden Age SF and beloved film/TV series like Star Wars or Star Trek, and unflinchingly deny the wish-fulfillment that SF often nurtures. Solaris represents a very mature response to the question of alien intelligence, one I found both brilliant and ironic.

I will review each film in a separate future post.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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4 comments

  1. How do you communicate with someone if you can’t even find the commonalities? This is a fascinating subject.

    I look forward to the movie reviews.

  2. Yes, movie reviews coming soon! Would you believe the 1972 Tarkovsky version is available for rent at iTunes for $3.99? That is truly the long-tail of e-commerce.

  3. That is pretty amazing.

  4. Good review. I’ve never read Lem, but the film buy Tarkovsky stayed with me from the first watch (I like his Stalker too) so it’s something I’ll have to get around to, some day.

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