I am nowhere near as versed in science fiction as I am in horror fiction, and recently I’ve been trying to remedy that somewhat, in particular focusing on science fiction by Russian and Eastern European authors. Back in March I read Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 (2005), which was influenced heavily by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), which I read in May. Both were brilliant, thought-provoking novels, and it was only natural to proceed next to the famous Polish science fiction novel, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961).
Solaris is a quiet novel about contact with an alien intelligence that is utterly beyond human comprehension. It is a book filled with ideas, not action, and it will leave you thinking about those ideas long after finishing it.
Solaris is told from the perspective of psychologist Kris Kelvin, and begins as he arrives at the research station Solaris, hovering above the enigmatic planet’s surface. Kelvin has come to Solaris at the urgent and cryptic request of his former mentor Gibarian, who said nothing in his message about why he should come.
Both men have a history of researching the planet Solaris, which is unique among all the planets explored by humans through the galaxy. It is, apparently, alive, covered almost entirely by what can only be described as a living ocean that has unfathomable power; it is able, somehow, to control its own orbit around its binary star system.
For over a century since its discovery, Solaris has been studied by humanity. They have explored the spontaneous structures that emerge from its depths, they have probed it with X-rays, they have theorized endlessly about it intelligence and motivations. But they have come no closer to understanding its nature, and have completely failed at making contact with it. Over the decades, Solaris has gone from the most exciting scientific discovery of all time to a relatively unspoken embarrassment.
When Kelvin arrives at the station, he finds it in disarray. He first encounters Dr. Snow, who seems confused and delusional, and learns that Dr. Sartorius is barricaded within his laboratory. Of Dr. Gibarian, there is no sign. Snow cryptically warns Kelvin to do nothing if he encounters anyone else on the station… although only Sartorius, Snow, and Gibarian are supposed to be there.
What happens next shakes Kelvin to his very core. He awakens on the station next to a vision of his long lost love Rheya… who died long ago. She is more than just a vision, however: she is flesh and blood. It quickly becomes clear that the others on the station have had similar visitations, and that these visitors have been generated by the living planet itself. But what is their purpose? Have they been sent by Solaris to make contact, to gather information, to torment the scientists… or something else?
As I have said, Solaris is a quiet, thoughtful novel. Most of the story is conversations among the researchers, discussing their predicament, as well as personal conversations between Kelvin and Rheya. In addition, there is much reflection upon the history of Solaris, in terms of the explorations and scientific arguments concerning it. This exposition, remarkably, never gets boring: the philosophical ideas and the imagery conjured by Stanislaw Lem is simply that compelling.
Lem manages to masterfully combine the very personal story of Kelvin with the mystery of the living ocean. Both are worth the time, but it is clear that the centerpiece of the novel is the unfathomable alienness of Solaris. Lem’s novel is a counterpoint to much of the science fiction of his era, which envisions humanity’s contact and knowledge sharing with aliens races. Lem throws cold water on this optimistic view and argues that it may simply not be possible for us to make contact with some forms of intelligent life, even if we are literally looking right at it.
I really love science fiction novels that convey a mixture of alienness and awe; in my limited experience, I have only encountered a few others that have felt the same to me. Among these are the aforementioned Roadside Picnic (1972), Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama (1972), and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (1989). If there are others I should read (remember, I am not super versed in science fiction), please let me know in the comments.
Solaris has been successful enough to have three film adaptations, once for the small screen and twice for the big screen. The first was the 1968 Russian television film, directed by Boris Nirenburg. The definitive film version remains the 1972 Soviet-era movie directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Most recently, Steven Soderbergh made a new movie version in 2002 starring George Clooney. I haven’t seen any of these yet — I intend to see the Tarkovsky version, at least — but I understand that they tend to focus more on the human aspects of the story rather than the alien. This is perhaps inevitable, due to the way that stories are told on film; it can be quite challenging to tell Solaris on film the way the novel does, with frequent anecdotes and reminisces about the history of human exploration on the planet.
Which is why you should definitely read the original novel! It is an undeniable classic, and perhaps one of the most unique science fiction stories ever written. There isn’t really anything else I can say about it.
Well, one more thing, I guess. Just as a random aside: the cover of the edition I read (pictured at the beginning of the post) is quite featureless, but the color scheme is surprisingly compelling! It is a good example of good minimalist design, as far as I’m concerned.
Two neat old SF books: Olaf Stapledon’s STARMAKER and Naomi Mitchison’s MEMOIRS OF A SPACEWOMAN.
I haven’t read Lem in decades but I went through a period where I devoured Lem’s writings. In addition to Solaris, I love The Futurological Congress – the rats in top hats still haunt me and they’re a throw away – and the short stories from Memoirs Found in a Bathtub are very Borgesian. (If you haven’t read Borges, get his works, too.)
I read Stapledon – and not to doubt Justin – never quite good t it.
In a related set of themes Bradbury is good but very mid-century. I read the Martian Chronicles as a kid and loved them, but my wife tried recently and found them unreadable. (He makes the links to Poe explicit with his take on the House of Usher.
And in the land of tripping philosophical SF, I’ll add late era Philip K Dick. Ubik was one that really rated as the full PKD. They do call him an SF writer’s Sf writer. He was full of clever ideas (and he was deeply troubled) but he couldn’t really plot out a story.