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Review: Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

Written by Chris Routledge, 20th June 2008

Chris Pak was born and grew up in Hong Kong and is currently completing an MA in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. Apart from sf and music his interests include postcolonialism and environmentalism which he plans to study at PhD level later this year under an Allott Graduate Teaching Assistantship.

Solaris was written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem in 1961 and has since been regarded as a science fiction classic. It has been adapted for film twice: in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky and in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh. While the Fabe & Faber edition I read for this review takes its cover art from the 2002 film it is perhaps no surprise that a reading of the book provides quite a different experience from the film; Lem himself has said that he never liked the first and was unenthusiastic about the second. Coming to the book after having watched the 2002 adaptation I was unprepared for the magnificent focus on the planet Solaris and the way in which the psychological examination the narrator, Dr. Kris Kelvin, and the motives behind the ideal of the scientific quest for knowledge are built around this foundation.

Solaris is a planet orbiting two suns, a red and a blue, whose surface is covered by a single “ocean” that has been the subject of debate in "Solarist studies" for a century. The problem is no less than the question of life and consciousness: if the sea is organic is it conscious and, if so, can it be communicated with and understood? The confrontation with Solaris forces scientists to continually re-evaluate the assumptions that inform their understanding of the universe: first that of the possibility of life on a planet orbiting two suns, for they discover the sea is indeed organic, then the conditions necessary for the development of consciousness and finally the possibility of making contact with and understanding something so utterly different.

Solaris continually defies not only understanding, but analysis. The monsters of this science fiction text are spectacular phenomenon such as the eruption of formations from the sea that, when examined, are revealed to represent in spatial terms complex mathematical equations through the flowering of their architectural structure that illustrates or directly contravenes the laws of physics. Is the ocean aware that it does this? Their efforts to explain these phenomena are continually subject to anthropomorphism, the scientific project imagined not as a march towards understanding but a slower ‘stumbling, one- or two-step progression from our rude, prehistoric, anthropomorphic understanding of the universe around us’ (178). The planet remains incomprehensible. We learn of Solaris and some of the previous expeditions through several sequences of Kelvin reading and thinking about the scientific works about it. Through this device the sheer bulk of the knowledge of Solaris is ironised by contrast with the little actual knowledge they have of it. Yet despite learning very little about Solaris itself this extended confrontation with the alien reveals to us something about our own humanity. Solaris does what the best of science fiction does well. Through encounters with the undeniably Other we get a glimpse of those characteristics that we hide from ourselves.

The book opens with Kelvin describing his departure from the ship Prometheus in a shuttle to Station Solaris. Isolated from Earth, then from the Prometheus on a journey alone in space, then in a station on an alien planet with only three other researchers the foundations for a psychological examination of our narrator and the two other scientists, Snow and Sartorius, is set. When he arrives all is not well. His mentor Gibarian is dead and he is faced with inexplicable behaviour from supposedly rational scientists. Tapping into the brooding apprehension that is the Gothic hallmark the breakdown of order and the mystery that permeates the opening of the book reads as if it were a horror story. Snow refuses to explain what has happened and Kelvin begins to question their sanity as he tries to establish the facts behind their situation at the station. The appearance of an apparition forces him to question his own sanity and what follows is an initial triumph whereby Kelvin uses scientific means in order to establish, ironically against hope, that he is indeed sane.

Station Solaris is being visited. These manifestations, dubbed ‘Phi-creatures’ by Snow, manifest as people from the unconscious memories of the scientists’ pasts. Kelvin is visited by a manifestation of Rheya, his young wife who, ten years ago, he drove to commit a desperate suicide. He cannot escape her; she is compelled to follow him and is able to return when sent off the station. Snow and Sartorius are visited by their own ghosts that cause them to isolate themselves from each other in order to deal in their own way with these reminders of what is hinted at as even more tragic pasts. Rationally Kelvin must admit that the Rheya he sees is not the Rheya he knew--is not even human--but this knowledge is under siege by the emotional force attached to his memory of her.

These manifestations are products of the ocean, for what motive no one can say. It becomes clear to the scientists that it can read their minds and create perfect human bodies and, ironically, they begin to suspect that the ocean is using these figures as tools to study them. These phi-creatures are not aware of their creation and believe themselves to be the people they look like, albeit with the memories of the mind that they were created from. It does not take long for Rheya to discover that she is not human and can have no existence independent of the planet Solaris. What follows is a heartrending sequence of denial and the struggle against her very nature. Kelvin, tormented by the memory of his dead wife, his ejection of the first manifestation of Rheya into orbit in a shuttle around Solaris and the emotional pressure of this manifestation, is plunged into an irrational apathy and becomes detached from reality.

Solaris is a book that examines the fundamentals of our existence and place in the universe. It questions the divergence between the arts and sciences by illustrating the propensity for scientific explanation to rely on an ‘anthropomorphic understanding of the universe around us’ (178) while accepting that, despite the way that objective reality is filtered through the human senses and understanding, it must still bear some relation to that reality. It questions the project of the colonisation of the universe through an overarching scientific knowledge, ‘The Myth of the Mission of Mankind’, when the darkness of the individual mind has not yet been adequately examined and faced (181). Finally, it asks us to consider how far the scientific urge for contact with an alien Other is the displaced yearning, in religious or poetic terms, for a redemptive meeting with something that transcends the limits of man and could flood human understanding with a knowledge that is properly incommunicable. Ultimately, the great achievement of Solaris is the way in which, upon finishing the book, all these questions remain juxtaposed and oscillate unanswered while this state of unknowing is held open in a shift from hope, implying a looking backwards to a negation or lack, to expectation, leaving the future somewhat ironically open and expansive to the ambivalent possibilities of a universe of ‘cruel miracles’ (214).


Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem, is published by Faber and Faber.

Posted by Chris Pak

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