Solaris is Book #448 on the 1001 Book List and this review was first published in July 2012.
Solaris is the 1961 science fiction classic by Polish author, Stanislaw Lem.
Let me start with the fact that I didn’t actually enjoy reading this story. I didn’t relate to the way it was told; found it very dry and the writing frequently obfuscating. Lem, apparently, read fluent English and was disappointed in the translation. Perhaps that accounts for some of the issues I had, which is a shame as the ideas Lem puts forward were clouded somewhat by the way the story reads.
The setting is a research space station orbiting the planet Solaris.
The protagonist, Kris Kelvin, arrives after a long space trip to the research station. He is expecting a welcome from an old teacher, Gibarian, when he arrives. This doesn’t happen, instead he is met with silence and a feeling of dread. Eventually he locates one of the crew, Snow, and in a manner no more fun to read than to have teeth pulled, he extracts the information that Gibarian is just recently dead. Snow hints of dreadful things while telling Kelvin nothing at all of the circumstances on the station.
This entire section of the book feels extremely odd and unreal, with strange reactions and behaviour from both Kelvin and Snow. We learn that there is a third person on the station, Sartorius, who has more or less become a hermit in his research laboratory. No explanation is forthcoming from the slightly less reclusive Snow. Soon, however, we are given insight into the unusual happenings, with Kelvin’s sighting of a “giant Negress” in Gibarian’s room and by his body. This is followed by Kelvin’s own ghostly, yet real, visitor – his deceased wife, Rheya.
Are you with me so far? If so, well done. You are doing better than I was at this point in the book.
The story continues to unfold, especially around the indestructible “visitors” that each man has. We are only ever given extensive information about Kelvin’s. While Kelvin tries to work out what is happening on the station there is ample opportunity for Lem to include a lot of description about the history of the study of Solaris and it’s planet-wide ocean. This is not carried out in an overly subtle way. At this point the themes Lem seems to want to explore start to take shape. After generations of study, mankind has named just about every phenomena going on Solaris, but is none the wiser about the Ocean for having done so. There is one section of researchers who believe the Ocean to be sentient, but no one has ever managed to establish any sort of connection or communication with it. The visitations start after a particularly aggressive, and unauthorised, experiment is carried out on the Ocean. Here we are confronted with the idea that the Ocean is, in its turn, experimenting on the researchers. Yet we have no idea why it is doing so. This is no fuzzy E.T. and it is no anthropomorphised life form either. Perhaps that is why I found this novel to be so unenjoyable.
Having just recently read this interesting post* regarding the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, I am having to take another look at Solaris. And myself as a reader, along with my responses to various novels. Solaris clearly is not science fiction “genre” writing if you come at it with the idea that genre reinforces current ideology. Lem is definitely challenging the normal human-centric view of our likely future contact with sentient entities. He is poking at our self-centredness, as though we will be unencumbered in our ability to communicate and understand what we may find in the universe one day.
It is thought provoking and the ideas are interesting. I just wish they had been wrapped up in easier, more flowing prose.
* I highly recommend Tales from the Reading Room if you have a bookish leaning. I find I learn or am provoked to think about something from most posts, as well as her very interesting commenting public.