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.