Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

I’ve had “Solaris” sitting on my TBR for some time now, and despite loving the Lem I’ve read, for some reason I’ve held back from picking this one up. I’m not sure if it’s the film tie-in cover that’s put me off, or what, but as I’d hit one of those phases where I wasn’t sure what to read next, I decided this would be the time for “Solaris”.

solaris paper

Film tie in paperback

I had imagined that this would be a more serious type of science fiction than the slightly lighter collections of his I’d read, and indeed it is. The book is narrated in the first person by Kris Kelvin, a psychologist. The story begins with Kelvin travelling to Solaris where there is a space station studying the planet. However, on his arrival things are not as they should be; the station seems almost deserted, there is nobody there to meet him and if it wasn’t for the remote-controlled systems helping with his entry from space he might not have made it. There should have been three men on Solaris, as well as a number of robots, but the latter are entirely missing and Kelvin’s first encounter with one of the crew (Snow/Snaut) is problematic; the man is edgy, unnerved and unwilling to have much contact with Kelvin. It is revealed that the captain, Gibarian has committed suicide; and Sartorius, the other crew member, is locked away elsewhere in the station.

Solaris itself is a mystery; there have been enormous amounts of research, books, theses, investigations and experiments, none of which have revealed its real nature. It is made up of what appears initially as a kind of sea, but it eventually has become clear that this is a living entity of some kind, although no way has been found to contact it in any kind of meaningful way. The living ocean creates fantastic structures and destroys them; exhibits no hostility but can destroy if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time; and all the humans can do is observe.

However, it transpires that shortly before Kelvin arrived, the crew had tried an unauthorised experiment by bombarding the ocean with high-energy x-rays. The results were unexpected; each crew member has received a ‘visitor’ apparently created by the living ocean from somewhere deep down in their psyche. Gibarian’s was a “giant Negress”; we never find out who or what visited Snaut/Snow or Sartorius; and Kelvin soon encounters a perfect replica of a dead woman, Harey/Rheya, whose suicide he regards as his fault.

Human beings set out to encounter other worlds, other civilizations, without having fully gotten to know their own hidden recesses, their blind alleys, well shafts, dark barricaded doors.

The replica is perfect, but needs to be close to the subject who created it; and Kelvin is torn between a wish to believe that this is the really Harey/Rheya, and the knowledge that it isn’t. While he grapples with the guilt tormenting him, the other two crew members struggle with their demons, and Sartorius attempts to find some way to destroy the visitors. Kelvin is face with a dilemma; if he leaves Solaris, then Harey/Rheya will die, but to stay means madness…

Ebook cover

Ebook cover

As soon as I put aside the silly film images on the cover, “Solaris” was a winner on so many levels. The book excels in capturing the creeping menace of dealing with something completely unknown and the atmosphere of the space station is conjured brilliantly. As Lem so clearly identifies, when men reach into space they’re looking for something human-like – more advanced than us, yes, but similar. In all of his fictions I’ve read so far, contact is often a fumbling, difficult affair (in Star Diaries an ambassador was mistaken for a soft drinks vending machine!) but here it seems impossible. The entity on Solaris is something completely incomprehensible to the human mind and this is a more likely scenario for finding life in the stars than some bug-eyed alien from a 1950s trashy movie.

A human being is capable of taking in very few things at one time; we see only what is happening in front of us, here and now. Visualizing a simultaneous multiplicity of processes, however they may be interconnected, however they may complement one another, is beyond us. We experience this even with relatively simple phenomena. The fate of a single person can mean many things, the fate of several hundred is hard to encompass; but the history of thousands, millions, means essentially nothing at all.

Not only does Lem suggest that it’s pointless for us to look to space for contact, he also suggests that we don’t really know what we are yet ourselves and until we do we would do best to avoid alien cultures.

s lem

“Solaris” is a wonderful and thought-provoking book, though it isn’t perfect; the narrative is a little uneven, and there are long sections looking at the history of Solaristic studies which perhaps don’t sit quite comfortably into the story. However, putting this aside, it has to be one of the most interesting and provocative science fiction books I’ve read. The concept is brilliant; the idea that there are creations we can’t even begin to understand is a novel one for the time the book was written; and the tale itself is gripping and spooky. The science lost me occasionally, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the plot. And the descriptions of the ocean’s creations were so vivid that the images they painted in my head will stay for a long time.

I’m now very glad that I haven’t seem either of the “Solaris” films, because I imagine that particularly the US version would have focused very much on the story of Kelvin and Harey/Rheya at the expense of the philosophical ideas behind the book. As it is, I’m even more convinced of Stanislaw Lem’s greatness and I really can’t wait to read more of his work.

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You might well have wondered why I gave alternative names to some of the characters above, and I think an extra paragraph or two needs to be spent explaining the translation issues I had with “Solaris”. The version I had (tree book) was the Faber film tie in version translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steven Cox. However, I had also picked up an e-book version and when I had a chance to read a few pages on the electronic device, I did so, but noticed that this was a different version, by Bill Johnston. A little online research led to me finding out that the Faber version was a translation of a French version of the Polish original, which Lem had described as poor (the French version, that is). The Johnston version, direct from the Polish to (American) English, was described as “careful and accurate”.

Some of the differences were obvious – the names, for example; in Polish, the woman’s name is Harey, but this was changed to Rheya for no apparent reason, and the same with Snaut/Snow. As for the other differences, I can’t say as I haven’t made a comparison, but I did end up switching from the paper book to the e-book halfway through as my confidence in the Kilmartin/Cox version had been shaken.

And yet – that’s not the full story, as just because a translation is “careful and accurate” doesn’t mean it’s going to read best… When I was preparing this review, I compared the two versions of a particular passage I wanted to quote and here they are:

We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. (Kilmartin/Cox)

We’re humanitarian and noble, we’ve no intention of subjugating other races, we only want to impart our values to them and in return, to appropriate their heritage. We see ourselves as Knights of the Holy Contact. That’s another falsity. We’re not searching for anything except people. We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. One world is enough, even there we feel stifled. (Johnston)

There are quite a few differences here, and I have to say that if I was ignoring the background issues to the translation, I would certainly prefer the Kilmartin/Cox. Whether that’s a US English vs proper English thing, I don’t know – but it certainly muddies the waters of appreciating “Solaris” a lot!

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