Science fiction almost always assumed the aliens we meet play some kind of game with us the rules of which we sooner or later may understand (in most cases the "game" was the strategy of warfare). However I wanted to cut all threads leading to the personification of the Creature, i.e. the Solarian Ocean, so that the contact could not follow the human, interpersonal pattern - although it did take place in some strange manner. The method I used in the novel to demonstrate this was the particular outcome of the interest of people, who for over one hundred years have been studying the planet Solaris and the ocean covering its surface.
Whether it's his best or not, Solaris is certainly Stanislaw Lem's best known novel, thanks to the visionary film version by Andrei Tarkovsky and the widely-panned recent remake by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. The story has surprisingly many levels considering its seeming simplicity. A coldly rational psychologist, Kris Kelvin, arrives aboard a space station whose three man crew is investigating the planet Solaris, which has become a source of fascination for Earth scientists thanks to its ocean, an apparently intelligent organism of some kind. It is believed that the Ocean has even tried communicating with men and so the mission is trying to make contact.
Something though has gone badly wrong on Station Solaris. Kelvin arrives to find that of the three crewmen, one (Gibarian) has already committed suicide, one (Sartorius) won't leave his cabin, and the third (Snow) is terribly skittish. He soon discovers what has the men so spooked as he sees first an apparition of a large black women and then meets a doppelganger of his wife (Rheya), who had herself committed suicide years earlier. Freaked out by the experience he launches the creature into space only to have another perfect copy show up. It seems the Ocean is conducting its own observations or experiments upon the humans by monitoring their responses to "ghosts" plumbed from their own memories. the remainder of the novel concerns the effort to solve the mystery of why the Ocean is doing this and what it's trying to "say".
Lem peels back a number of layers from this spare plot. First, he considers what it is that makes us human. As Kelvin falls in love with pseudo-Rheya is he falling in love with a fellow human? If not, is the creature worthy of love? An equal?
Second, he pokes fun at the limitations of science. The people of Earth are certain that they will be able to comprehend and communicate with the Ocean. Thousands of volumes of speculation have been written about it, theories abound. Kelvin discourses on them at great length in passages that may appear tedious and pedantic at first, until we realize that Lem's intent is comic. Man knows nothing concrete about the Ocean, but that hasn't stopped us from creating an entire science of Solaristics.
Likewise, he pokes fun at the limits of our scientific imagination. As Snow explains to Kelvin:
"We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. 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. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with 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, of 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 any more."All of this serves to point up our hubris.
He also uses the book to demonstrate the difficulties we have communicating, from the impossibility of "speaking" with the Ocean to the manner in which the crew talk across each other, so that these lines follow the speech above:
I had listened to him patiently. "But what on earth are you talking about?"Snow has tried explaining how Man doesn't really pay attention to what he finds in the universe but tries to shape it to fit preconceived notions, but Kelvin hasn't even paid attention to the lesson.
The conclusion of the story is, perhaps inevitably, somewhat unsatisfying--these aren't exactly truths we're eager to hear, are they? The Tarkovsky film, though even more opaque than the book, does provide an ending that offers powerful consolation, but doesn't seem terribly true to Lem's vision. Both though, provided you approach them with some patience, are rewarding.
See also:Science Fiction & Fantasy
-POEM: Love and Tensor Algebra (from "The Cyberiad" by Stanislaw Lem )
-ETEXT: SUMMA TECHNOLOGIAE (S. Lem, Krak—w 1964, translated from the 4th Polish edition,æ Wydawnictwo Lubelskie, Lublin 1984)
-INTERVIEW: an interview with Stanislaw Lem (Wojciech Orlinski of "Wiadomosci Kulturalne")
-INTERVIEW: Sci-Fi Writer Stanislaw Lem on Down-to-Earth Issues (Valery Masterov, 4/08/04, The Moscow News Weekly)
-Stanislaw Lem (1921-) (kirjasto)
-Stanislaw Lem (Wikipedia)
-Vitrifax: On Stanislaw Lem (Matt McIrvin)
-Stanislaw Lem on the Web
-Scriptorium - Stanislaw Lem (Nathan M. Powers, October 1999)
-Planet BrainSex: Stanislaw Lem
-ESSAY: Communication Breakdown: The Novels of Stanislaw Lem (Daniel Ust)
-Stanislaw Lem Bibliography. (Mike Sofka)
-Study Guide for Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961) (Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University)
-ESSAY: SOLARIS 2.0Solaris, Rediscovered (Gary Wolf, December 2002, Wired)
-ARCHIVES: "stanislaw lem" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW: of Solaris (Matt McIrvin)
-REVIEW: of Solaris (Mind's Eye)
-REVIEW: of Solaris (Steven Wu)
Book-related and General Links:
-REVIEWS : Solyaris (1972) aka Solaris (1973) (Movie Review Query Engine)
-REVIEW : of Solaris (1971) (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of Solaris (Joe Bob Briggs, Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In)
-REVIEW : of Solaris (Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr)
-REVIEW : of Solaris (Acquarello, Strictly Film School)
-REVIEW : of Solaris (CGK, Bungalow)
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