Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz edition, art by Dominic Harman.

Following on from Rendezvous with Rama and Solaris, next up in my sporadic reading of SF that deals with the cosmic weird is the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (coincidentally — or not — another book adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky). First published in the Russian literary magazine Avrova in 1972, then in book form after a five-year delay (the brothers became somewhat frowned upon by the Communist authorities), it first came out in English in 1977, translated by A W Bouis. I read the 2012 translation by Olena Bormashenko (you can read an interview with her here).

The novel is divided into four chapters, dipping into the life of Redrick Schuhart, or “Red” as he’s known, between the ages of 23 and 31. Red is a Stalker, one of a small group of “desperate young men who, despite the grave risks, sneak into the Zone and smuggle out whatever they find”. What, then, is “the Zone”?

Six of these mysteriously transformed areas appeared, suddenly, after an incident known simply as “the Visit”, during which it’s assumed aliens briefly landed on Earth. (It was later calculated, from the path the scattered Zones describe across the surface of the Earth, that they originated from the star Deneb in Cygnus.)

Pocket Books 1978 edition, art by Alan Magee

The Zones’ weirdness is never fully catalogued or even remotely explained. Everything about them seems to defy human understanding of the physical universe. There are, for instance, pockets of sudden, intense gravity (known as “bug traps” to the Stalkers, “graviconcentrate” to the scientists), stepping into which will immediately crush you flat. There are similar areas of intense, blistering heat. A substance the Stalkers call “hell slime” (a “colloidal gas” to the scientists) turns anything that touches it into a similar slime. A voyage of just a few hundred steps into the Zone, then, is fraught with mortal danger, and a need to be constantly ready for something new, deadly, and unexplainable at any moment. The authorities, naturally, stop people from entering, so Stalkers go in at night.

Why go in at all? The Zone is littered with objects of immense value — alien artefacts that scientists are still struggling to understand, but which the black market has found uses (and prices) for. “Spacells”, for instance, are inexhaustible batteries. “Black sparks” are used in jewellery for their property of absorbing light then emitting it in modified form. There’s a bracelet that seems to promote health, and a substance called “blue panacea”. There are also highly dangerous items such as the “death lamp”, which emits a deadly ray (and whose current whereabouts are unknown, along with the Stalker who found it). Other objects are simply mysterious, though are studied at length by scientists. For instance, the numerous “empties”, which are pairs of saucer-sized copper-coloured disks that remain paired together, with a constant 18-inch gap between them, yet no physical connection. In an echo of Lem’s Solaris, numerous papers have been written about these things without anyone coming any closer to understanding how they work, or what they’re for.

The weirdness of the Zones (though we only see one, in the town of Harmont, in an unspecified country) isn’t, though, the focus of the tale. Rather, Roadside Picnic (whose name draws an analogy between the alien detritus of the Zones and what human visitors to a forest might leave behind after a picnic), centres on the lives of people trying to make a living from it. To the Stalkers, the Zone is both a “treasure trove” and “an evil temptation” — “The damned hag. My lifeblood,” as Red says — a place that draws them with the promise of much-needed gains, while ruining them both psychologically and physically. The constant mortal danger, for instance, instils an ingrained cynicism about their own and others’ lives. (Do you rescue a fellow Stalker when he loses his legs to hell slime, or leave him, perhaps even give him a quick death?) And if they do escape, they’re at constant risk of discovery by the authorities; all of them have spent time in jail. There are weirder effects, too. Red, for instance, has had several moments in the Zone when his perceptions become preternaturally, almost painfully, acute. These moments seem to be leaking into his outside-the-Zone life, too, like LSD flashbacks. And then there are the children. Although the Zone is not radioactive, Stalkers’ children tend to have mutations. Red’s daughter is known as the Monkey for her pelt of silky fur. Another Stalker’s daughter is exceptionally beautiful, yet resembles neither of her parents.

As the Stalkers’ dealings with the Zone are on a practical level — how to survive, what to retrieve, how to sell it on afterwards — none of them really pause to think about the deeper implications. That aspect — the more cosmically weird aspect — only gets brought up once, in a conversation with a scientist, Dr Valentine Pillman, to whom the most profound fact about the Zones is their mere existence. They tell us, he says, that we are not alone in the universe, and this single fact outweighs everything else about them. That said, he’s aware that what’s found in the Zones “could potentially allow us to skip a few rungs in the ladder of progress”, if only any of it could be even remotely understood. The current state of Zone-related studies, though, is just a series of “miraculously received answers to questions we don’t yet know how to pose”. (Pillman has the best line in the book, when he speaks of the possible world they might live in if all of the Zones’ mysteries were unleashed: a “time of cruel miracles”.)

So, if Roadside Picnic isn’t explicitly about the weirdness of the universe that’s implied by the Zones, what is it about? One obvious possibility, considering it was written and published in the USSR, is that it’s a criticism of capitalism, in the way the semi-miraculous weirdness of the Zone is immediately exploited in every possible way by these (evidently Western) humans — and, of course, the way this exploitation leads to a moral and spiritual decay in the exploiters. But equally, I wondered if the novel wasn’t a highly-veiled satire on living in a totalitarian state, in the way it presents ordinary human beings doing their best to make a living in the face of this incomprehensible but powerful thing, which operates under no stable set of rules and can issue instant death without a moment’s notice.

The best take I found on the novel, though, came from Theodore Sturgeon, who emphasised the positive moral qualities brought out in the book (the full article is here):

“Add the Strugatskys’ deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness, and you have a truly superb tale, ending most poignantly in what can only be called a blessing. You won’t forget it. ”

The ultimate prize to be found in the Zone is the Golden Sphere, a rumoured object said to be able to grant any wish. It sounds like pure fantasy, but none of the Stalkers question it, and in the final chapter Red sets out to find it. But if the Golden Sphere is the Holy Grail, and the Stalkers the flawed knights that seek it, Red is no pure-souled Galahad. Yet, however cynical and bitter he thinks he’s become, the mere proximity of this ultimate magical object brings out, from some long-dormant depth, a benevolence for all humankind that surprises even himself. And, in a way, this may be the best thing this Holy Grail has to offer him: if it can’t set the entire world magically to rights, the mere possibility of its existence might, nevertheless, restore his deeper humanity.

1979 Penguin edition, art by Adrian Chesterman

Areas of weirdness like the Zone have popped up in this blog before. Ballard’s ever-spreading area of “time dilation” in The Crystal World, for instance. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land could be seen as a sort of inverted zone-of-weirdness, in that its weirdness covers all the world except the one, final island of human normality in the Great Redoubt. Ryhope Wood from the Mythago Wood books is a fantasy zone-of-weirdness, with its own version of “cruel miracles”. The earliest example I can think of is in Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” (the Strugatskys’ Zones have odd colour effects, too), while a more modern take is in Annihilation, based on Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (which I’ve not read).

Reading Roadside Picnic, I felt sure John Clute must have covered Zones, as a category, in the Encyclopedia of SF. And yes, they’re there — and, as a bonus, they’re not even given the wildly unexplanatory sort of nomenclature he so often uses (“Polder”, “Braid”, etc.). I guess Zones are just too strange, and primal, to be given any other name than “Zone”.

Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker was based on his pick of a number of scenarios the Strugatskys suggested, based on their book. It reduces the novel to its simplest element: a journey into the Zone, in search of the central room where wishes come true. The fact that the Stalker leads two men, known only as the Writer (a cynic, to whom the world is “hopelessly boring… ruled by cast iron laws” with no room for miracles or wonders) and the Professor (a physicist, who, it turns out, sees the wish-fulfilling room as a potential creator of would-be-tyrants and world-dictators), made me at first think it was going to be about bringing the “two cultures”, science and art, before a source of mystery and awe. But by the end it’s apparent the actual dichotomy is between these two — who are both intellectuals — and the Stalker himself, a much more innocent and instinctual man, who leads people to the wish-fulfilling room but feels no need to partake of its wonders himself. If this film is about art then the Stalker, not the Writer, is the artist, leading people to the vision, the wonder, and letting them decide how to see it, what to do with it. (He believes the dangers of the Zone aren’t there to ensure only the “good” or the “bad” reach the room, but those “who have lost all hope… the wretched.” The essential survival qualities, for him, are “pliancy” and “weakness”.)

It feels rather like a science fictional version of Waiting for Godot, with an ending almost opposite to the Strugatskys’ burst of hope. Here, the Stalker, who is driven by faith in humanity and a basic sense of wonder, feels worn down by the cynicism of those he takes into the Zone. Nevertheless, he’s drawn back to guiding people into the Zone, for, as his wife says: “It’s better to have a bitter happiness than a dull, grey life.”


Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke

Pan 1974 cover

Wondering where to look next (after Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Lem’s Solaris) for works that touch on the sort of cosmic themes Lovecraft addressed, though without his emphasis on horror, I wondered if Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama might be a good candidate. Clarke, whose “The Sentinel” was the kicking-off point for 2001: A Space Odyssey, is both an old-school hard-SF writer and one whose work strayed into themes of “the metaphysical, even to the mystical” (as the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction puts it). In fact Rama, published in 1973, was the first novel Clarke wrote after his collaboration with Kubrick (the novel of 2001, which was written alongside the screenplay, came out in 1968, but only after it had been revised and rewritten — at Kubrick’s behest — throughout the four preceding years), and reading it I found myself wondering if Rama might be a result of Clarke blowing off steam about the things Kubrick (who ultimately had final say on 2001) wouldn’t allow into the novel. (Clarke was very respectful and polite about Kubrick and their working relationship, despite the director’s demands over the novel resulting in Clarke apparently coming close to financial hardship at one point. The closest I could find to any criticism of Kubrick from Clarke, though, was this, from when the director’s demands for yet more edits meant they had to cancel the existing publishing contract and find a new one: “There seems to be a right way to do things, a wrong way, and Stanley’s way.”)

Rendezvous with Rama opens by introducing us to Project Spaceguard, an effort to alert Earth (and, this being a few centuries in the future, the other inhabited planets of the solar system) about any potential collisions with comets and other objects. A new object has been spotted passing Jupiter, heading sunwards. It’s dubbed Rama, and it soon becomes clear this is no wandering asteroid:

“Its body was a cylinder so geometrically perfect that it might have been turned on a lathe — one with centres fifty kilometres apart. The two ends were quite flat, apart from some small structures at the centre of one facet, and were twenty kilometres across; from a distance, when there was no sense of scale, Rama looked almost comically like an ordinary domestic boiler.”

The closest spacecraft, Commander Norton’s Endeavour, is diverted to intercept and explore this object in the roughly month-long window before it gets too close to the sun. Landing on one of its flat ends, the Endeavour’s crew finds its way into the interior, which contains an entire landscape — there’s even a band of (at first frozen) sea about halfway along.

Bruce Pennington cover

It soon becomes evident Clarke’s focus is on the very practical problems of exploring such an object, and the sort of physical environment it presents. For instance, it has a certain amount of gravity, but because the explorers are inside it, when you’re standing close to the axis, gravity is pulling equally in all directions, so it cancels out to zero-G. But gravity is felt increasingly as you move towards the surface of this artificial world. And, where any other author might provide a quick method to get people from the axis (where you enter Rama) down to the surface, Clarke spends several chapters on his characters exploring the best method of traversing the several kilometres of stairs: as it’s in low gravity, for instance, it’s tempting to just float down, but will this world’s gravity be enough to result in injury? And then there’s the Coriolis Effect caused by being inside a spinning object, meaning if you drop, say, some supplies above one point, they might land several kilometres to the side. And once Rama gets closer to the sun and starts to warm up, climatic changes kick in and its sea thaws, meaning Clarke gets to describe what he thinks would happen in such an artificial enclosed environment.

The closest parallel to a work by Lovecraft, I’d say, is At the Mountains of Madness, where scientists are exploring a remote alien city. But where Lovecraft’s city is covered in enough wall-art to give us a good idea of the culture and history of its former inhabitants, Clarke gives us few clues as to what the Ramans might look like, or what this massive object is for. He doesn’t even have his characters speculate, as though they’re too scientifically disciplined to do so on such little evidence. Perhaps it’s because Clarke knew how inevitably disappointing it could be to bring his aliens into the light after such a long build-up; but I can’t help feeling he was simply having too much fun focussing on the physical problems associated with this artificial world. He’d maybe get to the aliens, but only once he’d got through all the physics — and there’s plenty of physics to get through.

Folio Society cover

But since I was on the look out for hints of Lovecraftian cosmic awe, I did spot a few instances. Rama opens with mention of the 1908 Tunguska explosion (when “Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometres — a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe”). But where Lovecraft would have taken that near-miss as evidence of how overwhelmingly random the universe’s destructive forces are, and so how little human life matters, Clarke takes it as just one more practical problem humans have to deal with. Hence the creation of Project Spaceguard, to spot asteroids on their way towards Earth.

The sheer scale of time associated with the spacecraft Rama — Clarke points out it must have been “more than two hundred thousand years since Rama passed near any star” — comes close to another Lovecraftian note, as Lovecraft got a particular horror-thrill from the passage of time (he called time itself an “especial enemy of mine”), and even more so with vast eons (“After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again”), but in Clarke’s hand two hundred thousand years feels like a number of interest to note, and no more. As a scientist dealing with astronomical objects and forces, he’s used to massive numbers.

Commander Norton does get a glimpse of the sort of vertiginous fear Lovecraft associated with the cosmic/alien as he descends to Rama’s surface:

“His well-ordered universe had been turned upside down, and he had a dizzying glimpse of those mysteries at the edge of experience which he had successfully ignored for most of his life.”

But he has the mental discipline to rein himself in:

“There was mystery here — yes; but it might not be beyond human understanding… At all costs, he must not let Rama overwhelm him. That way lay failure — perhaps even madness.”

He goes on to muse that “The wonder and strangeness of Rama would banish its terrors, at least for men who were trained to face the realities of space.” (And I suspect Clarke was of that generation of SF writers who throughout their lives continued to find the very word “space” inherently thrilling.)

US first edition, 1973

Ultimately, for Clarke, Rama is a physical puzzle, not the calling card of cosmic horrors Lovecraft would have made of it. I’ve always felt that, by the time of At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft’s insistence on horror as the only response to the unusual was wearing a little thin, certainly when assigned to the scientists who make up that story’s Antarctic expedition, who’d more likely be positively thrilled to discover an alien city. But the almost complete lack of awe felt by Clarke’s protagonists leaves the weird fiction reader in me feeling something is, perhaps, missing in Clarke’s approach, where such an awesome alien object is merely an intriguing physical puzzle.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction talks of Clarke, in his work as a whole, presenting “images of humanity childlike in stature compared to the ancient, inscrutable wisdom of Alien races” — and that is, I think, his most characteristic note. Not the humans-as-insects of Lovecraft, but humans-as-children.

As I said above, I couldn’t help but read Rama with the feeling that something, shall we say, monumental might be looming over it — Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. And Kubrick does get a brief allusion in the text of Rama, with the mention of “Sid Krassman’s famous late-twentieth century [film] Napoleon” — that being something the real S. K. was planning as his follow-up to 2001. In the end, I never really felt Rama showed any evidence of letting off left-over steam from the Kubrick collaboration — I suspect Clarke was just too genuinely good-natured a person to have any resentments at all — but it was interesting that both 2001 and Rama end with a space-baby of sorts. With 2001, it’s the Star Child (which seems to have been Clarke’s suggestion); in Rama, it’s the news that one of Commander Norton’s wives (in this future, men and women can have multiple spouses) has been inseminated, thousands of miles away on Mars. Norton is the father, but:

“Like every astronaut, Norton had been sterilised when he entered the service; for a man who would spend years in space, radiation-induced mutation was not a risk — it was a certainty.”

It’s not, then, the mystical wonder-child of 2001, but a combination of scientific miracle and practical necessity, something that feels more in line with Clarke’s approach.

Clarke in 1974

Clarke might create situations of awe and wonder — the size of Rama, the implications of its hundreds of thousands of years’ journey — but is always ready with a bathetic counter-note (“Rama looked almost comically like an ordinary domestic boiler”) or has his characters focusing too much on the immediate practicalities — as trained astronauts would have to, practicalities being so necessary to their survival — to stand back and really bask in the sort of awe (or horror) a weirder-minded writer might.

Ultimately, there’s something childlike about Clarke himself. He’s intrigued by Rama as a sort of toy — what can it do? what’s it like inside? what happens if we drop things? — rather than the religious-level object the title of the novel implies.

Rendezvous with Rama won a host of awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, John W Campbell Memorial Award and BSFA Award. It was followed by several sequels — all collaborations — but I have to say, I’m not tempted to read them. Rama’s power is in its suggestiveness. Filling in the answers to the questions it raises will, I suspect, only turn it into one more spaceship in the crowded vacuum that is science-fictional space.


Solaris by Stanisław Lem

Solaris was first published in Poland in 1961, and in English translation in 1970 — though this translation (the one I read), by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, is based not on the original Polish, but a 1964 French translation by Jean-Michel Jasiensko. (It’s only in 2011 that a direct English-from-Polish translation came out, by Bill Johnston, though it’s not yet available as a print edition. I’d have read this one, though, if I had done my research beforehand.)

I was prompted to read Solaris following a vague train of thought about non-horror treatments of the sort of cosmic themes Lovecraft addressed — the human individual set against the immensity of the universe, encounters with the incomprehensible/truly alien, and so on — first in Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker, and now here. Solaris certainly brushes up against the horrific — I’d say it has a more viscerally distressing moment than anything in Lovecraft’s fiction, simply because it’s magnified by the sort of emotional aspects Lovecraft left out — but though it insists on the same incomprehensibility of the cosmos, Solaris simply doesn’t treat it as horror material.

Polish first edition

The novel is narrated by Kris Kelvin, who arrives at a research station hovering above the world-spanning ocean of a distant planet, Solaris, expecting to be greeted by the station’s three inhabitants, but finds nobody around and the place in disarray. He finally locates Snow (Snaut in the original), in as much a state of disarray as the station, who at first reacts in fear. When he’s assured Kelvin is who (and what) he says he is, Snow tells him the station’s leader, Gibarian, took his own life that morning. He then gives a number of obscure but vague warnings before asking to be left alone:

“Keep a hold on yourself. Be prepared to meet — anything. It sounds impossible, I know, but try. It’s the only advice I can give you.”

The planet Solaris was discovered over a century before Kelvin was born. An apparently uninhabited world, it elicited scientific interest when it was realised the planet didn’t follow the expected orbital path around its twin suns. It should have been moving through forbidding extremes of temperature, but instead kept within a narrow range, almost as though some force were acting on it to keep its environment stable, even habitable. Could it be the planet’s “ocean”? Described as “a sort of gigantic entity, a fluid cell, unique and monstrous… surrounding the globe with a colloidal envelope several miles thick in places”, it’s a mysterious, ever-moving substance that sometimes forms itself into vast, solid structures, only to let them lapse. Could it be, scientists began to wonder, that these weren’t random effects but the thought processes of some vast sentient organism, in effect a world-sized liquid brain? And so the scientific field of Solaristics was born.

But in the hundred-plus years since, almost nothing has been definitively learned about this mysterious “gravity-controlling colloid”. Looking through one of the many exhaustive and authoritative books on the subject, Kelvin sees:

“Multicoloured illustrations, picturesque graphs, analytical summaries and spectral diagrams… explaining the type and rhythm of the fundamental transformations [of the ocean] as well as the chemical reactions. Rapidly, infallibly, the thick tome led the reader on to the solid ground of mathematical certitude. One might have assumed that we knew everything there was to be known about this representative of the category Metamorph… In fact, by no means everyone was yet convinced that the ocean was actually a living ‘creature’, and still less… a rational one.”

Every attempt to communicate with this vast thing failed. Some scientists turned bitterly against it and did everything to disprove its potential sentience. Others concluded that, however interesting it was to human observers, the ocean itself simply wasn’t interested in them. At the point where the novel begins, Solaris studies are in a lull, but nobody is quite able to break away from this fascinating yet seemingly impenetrable mystery. But things are about to enter a new phase.

Arrow books PB from 1973

Waking up on his first morning in the station, Kelvin finds a woman in his room. He knows her — she’s Rheya (or Harey in the original, though I can see why the change was made), the woman he was in love with ten years ago. The only thing is, he left her, and as a result she killed herself. This Rheya is the same age as that Rheya, and even has the needle-mark from her fatal injection visible in her arm. Yet the skin of her feet is “soft, like that of a newborn child” and her dress, when she tries to remove it, proves to have no zips, and only ornamental buttons. It’s Rheya, but not Rheya. She’s not human, but she looks and reacts too much like a human being for Kelvin to easily treat her as not human.

She doesn’t remember how she got here, and seems unable to be separated from Kelvin — doing so causes her emotional distress and even physical pain — but Kelvin is at first horrified by her. He realises this is what Snow was trying to warn him about, and learns that the other members of the crew have their own “visitors”, though of different, but equally personal significance. (We never learn what Snow’s or — the other surviving station-member — Sartorius’s “visitor” is, though there are hints that Sartorius’s is a child or, even, a dwarf. Gibarian’s, though, Kelvin does see: a tall black woman, dressed in nothing but a grass skirt, like an exaggerated racial stereotype. Snow hints the “visitors” aren’t necessarily people you once knew, but embodiments of deep, often guilt-ridden, perhaps even perverse, emotional responses, which is one of the reasons the crew members keep themselves and their “visitors” hidden away from one another. They’re like walking advertisements of one’s deepest guilt, shame and vulnerability.)

First UK hardback, from Faber and Faber

Although the “visitors” think of themselves as what they appear to be — human beings — they are different at a sub-atomic level. Kelvin, at first refusing to learn from Snow’s cynical-sounding “wisdom”, rids himself of one Rheya only to find a new one there the next morning, oblivious to what he did to her. This is part of what’s putting such pressure on Snow and Sartorius, and what drove Gibarian to take his own life: the “visitors” are a constant reminder of (in Kelvin’s case) the guilt he feels at Rheya’s death, but they cannot be escaped. Worse, the apparently human side of “Rheya” can’t help being aware that something’s wrong with her, that she’s not what she thinks she is. The scientists do their best to discuss these matters in abstract terms, referring to “Phi-creatures”, and not stating things too explicitly, so they don’t distress these “visitors” any more than necessary — while also trying to work out how to rid themselves of them, or at least understand what their purpose might be.

Are they a form of communication from the world-ocean? Are they experiments the world-ocean is performing on its new human inhabitants, or are they attempts to drive those human beings away? Or are they just one more random natural process that surrounds this weird planet of Solaris, devoid of any purpose or meaning?

Ultimately, Solaris is about the essentially unknowable aspect of a truly alien encounter. As Snow says:

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, for 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…”

Lem says his main idea in Solaris was “to present the problem of an encounter in Space with a form of being that is neither human nor humanoid”:

“I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.”

Iranian cover, art by Yiran Jia

In the same piece (written in response to the 2002 Soderbergh film of the novel, which he hadn’t yet seen, but is sure he won’t like), Lem goes on to compare Solaris with Melville’s Moby Dick and “Capitan Ahab’s pernicious quest for the white whale”. His novel certainly has a few chapters that recall the whale-related info-dumps of Moby Dick, as Kelvin reviews the century of Solaris studies, including the classification of the many forms created by the world-ocean, or the trends in how the ocean’s possible intelligence is judged, at length and in hard-science-fictional detail. For me, though, the first comparison to come to mind is with ghost stories, in particular Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, whose hauntings were equally personally tailored and psychologically manipulative of its poor victim, Eleanor.

But there’s also Mythago Wood. In both Holdstock’s and Lem’s novels, a vast natural form (a forest, an ocean) which can be read as a symbol of the unconscious, generates physical embodiments of what dwells in the human psyche, creatures which appear human and can be interacted with as human, but ultimately are not — or, perhaps, reveal our stranger, less-human-seeming innermost depths. As the narrator Kelvin says:

“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.”

Solaris has the rare distinction of being adapted into films by both a Soviet-era Russian (Tarkovsky in 1972) and a big-name Hollywood American (Soderbergh in 2002).

Tarkovsky’s adds a preceding section on Earth (including here some of the material that, in the novel, was in the later info-dump chapters), and adds a somewhat trippy/highly symbolic ending which perhaps contributed to its being seen, at the time, as Russia’s answer to 2001. But it’s certainly engaging with the ideas of Lem’s novel, even if (as it should) it takes them in Tarkovsky’s own direction.

Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Soderbergh’s, on the other hand, seems far too intent on hitting the emotional highs without laying the necessary groundwork of plot, situation, or character. The early part of the story is dealt with so perfunctorily, it was obvious the filmmakers had no interest in anything till the drama between Rheya and Kelvin could get underway. Solaris, here, isn’t introduced at all, and it was only in a DVD extra that I discovered the filmmakers thought of it not as a planet with a perhaps-conscious ocean, but a planet-sized entity, seemingly made entirely out of energy. Nobody talks about the possibility of contact with this thing, and the mission is purely one to evaluate Solaris for commercial exploitation. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor for Hollywood there, somewhere.) It ends with a handful of twists, some obvious, some interesting, but in the end doesn’t, in my opinion, hit any note with sufficient force to leave much of an impression.

Soderbergh’s Solaris

Lem seems to have disliked both adaptions — in the case of the Soderbergh, without even seeing it — but that’s a common enough authorial stance. Certainly, his novel provided a template for some of the more thoughtful alien encounters in SF in subsequent years (Arrival, for instance).

For me, there’s an aesthetic to Solaris — both the novel and the films — of a pristine, almost surgically-clean technological surface, an island of apparent placidity and rationality amidst the bleakness and alienness of space, but one that serves to evoke the deepest human emotions of loss, guilt, and of vulnerability to one’s own undiscovered reaches. But I think this sort of emotional evocation works best with a light, even distanced touch, something the Soderbergh adaptation certainly doesn’t do. In space, no one needs to hear you scream; the vacuum, darkness, and immensity is scream enough.