Review: Solaris by Stanisław Lem

Solaris Book Cover Solaris [1961/70] – ★★★★★

Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilisations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed” [Stanisław Lem/Kilmartin/Cox, 1961/70: 164].

Solaris is considered to be the most influential and significant work of a Polish writer Stanisław Lem. Also made into a movie [1972] by Andrei Tarkovsky, the book tells of Kelvin, a psychologist, who arrives to a station orbiting the mysterious planet called Solaris. On board of the station are supposed to be three other researchers, and Kelvin joins them to know about their progress in trying to understand the planet, and, in particular, the ocean on Solaris that may or may not have consciousness of its own. Then, Kelvin starts to experience something coming from the mysterious planet no one has warned him about. The so-called “visitors” frequent the station and Kelvin begins to think he is losing his grip on reality when his dead wife makes an appearance, opening his emotional wounds. But, what is this strange force that plays tricks on the inhabitants of the station? What is the meaning of this psychic phenomenon coming from Solaris? Can researchers really understand its workings? It is easy to see why Solaris stood the test of time. The book is inventive, thought-provoking and fascinating. Its main attraction is the eerie, seemingly impenetrable mystery that surrounds the strange planet Solaris, but the merit of Lem’s story is also that it tells us as much about humanity, its characteristics and its limitations as about the attempts to understand the unfathomable – one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. 

At 19:00 hours, ship’s time, I made my way to the launching bay. The men around the shaft stood aside to let me pass, and I climbed down the capsule” [Lem/Kilmartin/Cox, 1961/70: 1], so begins this book by Lem and Kelvin’s journey to Solaris, a planet that escapes definitions and human attempts to know it. When Kelvin lands on the station orbiting Solaris, he is surprised to find out that it is virtually deserted and its inhabitants (Dr Snow and Dr Sartorius) lock themselves for days in their rooms without going out. What could they be doing in those rooms, and why the station is so isolated? Little Kelvin know that he is about to acquire the strange behaviour of Dr Snow and Dr Sartorius himself, when he falls under the influence of Solaris’s main mystery – its ocean that may be capable of knowing its human neighbours better than they know themselves.

When on the station, Kelvin finds his fears, hopes, secret desires and longings surface and materialise in the image of Rheya, his “visitor” at the station. His wife may be dead, but this Rheya on the station is one special kind of reality that Kelvin does not want to let go easily: “My body recognized her body; my body desired her, my body was attracted towards hers beyond reason, beyond thought, beyond fear” [Lem/Kilmartin/Cox, 1961/70: 61]. As different time and the two suns of Solaris – the red one and the blue one – slowly make their unusual effect on Kelvin, so does the station’s peculiar claustrophobia and the ocean’s mysterious influence. Kelvin soon finds himself bathing in a special kind of pleasure emanating from the vision of Rheya, even though he knows that this pleasure is also the source of his mental and emotional torment. Lem makes a point here that human obsessions and desires are as strong as any gravitational force, and it only takes a vision of one’s beloved for man to lose himself completely, let alone recover from that and then have strength to discover some external fascinating aspect of the universe.

Kelvin’s new experience of Solaris makes him question and revisit all the previous theories about the planet, and it is interesting to discover the previous thought and experiments of humans in relation to the planet. Can a contact be established with the intelligence that is supposedly present on Solaris? Kelvin and his team-mates attempt just such an experiment. Stanisław Lem makes a point that humanity pursues knowledge, but may not have the capabilities to understand (the meaning of) their findings. There is a difference between knowledge and understanding, and there is still so much about the human mind which humans still do not understand, let alone about the mysteries of some far-away galactic entities: “We observe a fraction of the process…we know, but cannot grasp, that above and below, beyond the limits of perception and imagination, thousands and millions of simultaneous transformations are at work…it has been described as a symphony in geometry, but we lack the ears to hear it” [Lem/Kilmartin/Cox, 1961/70: 126].

When reading Solaris, it becomes clear that its author Stanisław Lem is interested in the scientific implications of the discovery Solaris, and in the planet and ocean’s intricate workings. Sometimes, it even feels like Lem is more interested in the debates and questions surrounding the presumed intelligence found on Solaris than in the story of Kelvin. The passages on recent scientific discoveries are quite dense and not altogether easy to read as we plough through inventive terminology and academic research (mimoids, the possibility of Contact, Muntius’s strictures) and try to understand the different theories proposed about Solaris in the scholarly work. Like Philip K. Dick, Lem puts his ideas about the nature of intelligence on other planets and about the limitations of human perception in the fiction form, but, while Philip K. Dick blends seamlessly his reality-bending ideas into his stories, Lem is forced to take a step back from the narrative of Kelvin and write complex theories about Solaris in the format of Kelvin thinking back about his previous studies of Solaris or Kelvin reading some books on the planet which he found on the station.

Overall, Stanisław Lem’s Solaris is a “brainy” journey into the unknown. A mysterious planet having a comprehension beyond humans is a fascinating proposition that makes Lem’s story an engrossing read. In this tale, the claustrophobia of the Solaris station is only matched by the fears about the human mind’s limitations and its inability to grasp all the workings of the universe. In that regard, Lem’s tale is as much about exciting findings in a fictional universe as it is about the nature of humanity, its thirst for knowledge, obsessions and its inability to overcome its own weaknesses.

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