Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Lem has left an indelible mark on the world of both literature and cinema when he published Solaris back in 1961. It tells the story of a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, sent on a mission to a distant space station for the purpose of studying an ocean which, so far, has managed to defy all scientific explanation. However, when he arrives the situation on the station seems strangely dire, and soon an unexpected visitor appears from thin air.
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Stanislaw Lem Creates an Unyielding Mystery
The nature of the universe has never ceased to amaze us since we’ve been able to pierce the outermost layers of its surface, and the questions about the possibilities it has in store are only multiplying. The dream of making contact with intelligent beings from elsewhere in the cosmos is more of a reality than ever (fickle as it may be), and in Solaris, Stanislaw Lem looks at one potential manifestation of such an event.
Before moving on, I would like to note this bestseller of the 60s was turned into movies on three occasions. In my humble opinion, only one of them manages to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the novel, and it’s the one directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, released in 1972. It’s widely available with subtitles, should you be interested.
Going back to the book, the story follows a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, sent on a mission to a distant space station orbiting the titular ocean, Solaris. There has been a long-standing debate as to whether or not the ocean is a living creature, and for decades attempts to establish a well-defined contact with it have resulted in virtually no progress.
When Kelvin arrives at his destination, it seems nearly-abandoned, with the sole two other crew members, Snow and Sartorius, acting enigmatically, the latter essentially refusing any sort of contact. The last member of the crew is nowhere to be found, and suspicions begin to mount fairly quickly about what’s really happening on the station.
To make things even more confusing, soon Kelvin receives a visitor: a lover from his past who committed suicide many years ago. As he still tries to pierce the mysteries of the ocean below the station, constantly flowing and changing, he is also forced to look inward to face the painful memories and realities he has been trying so hard to leave behind.
The Science Behind the Ocean Solaris
The hard science-fiction genre is a well-known commodity these days, but despite the increasing number of writers in this domain, I can probably count on one hand the novels which improve upon, or even compare to the classics and pioneers. Sadly though, they seem to be increasingly slipping into the realms of the forgotten.
While Solaris wasn’t exactly the first in the genre, it remains, in my opinion, one of the best examples of how to integrate scientific literature and theories into a fictional story. I would say the majority of this short novel is indeed spent on advancing the story (more on this below), but first I would like to take some time to discuss the segments which qualify it as hard science-fiction.
How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?― Stanisław Lem, Solaris
For the most part, Stanislaw Lem doesn’t delve too profoundly into scientific concepts and theories, giving us brief and generalized overviews of what they mean, and most importantly, how they’re actually relevant to the story. The important points are always conveyed on a level which I believe is below most peoples’ abilities… or at least, I very much hope so.
As for their relevance to the story, the theories and models are more often than not centred around either explaining the phenomena which have been witnessed in the ocean, or the events which the main character is privy to. I have to applaud the author’s ability to integrate the mathematics and physics of the real world so profoundly into a fictional story that they can serve as a basis for its development.
I’ll be the first to admit there are a few moments where Stanislaw Lem seems to delve into the concepts a little too profoundly for my taste, but thankfully these segments never last long and don’t, by any means, detract from the rest of the story. Nothing is truly perfect, and even great classics fall victim to this essential law of life.
A Journey Inwards
On one hand, Solaris is a hard sci-fi novel focusing on the study of the titular ocean, the many manifestations of its capabilities, and its potential effects on the crew of the space station. On the other hand though, I would just as easily call it a character study revolving around the idea of just how much happiness a dead past can bring us.
Kris Kelvin’s journey on the station reads almost like a mystery novel, as he inches closer and closer to assembling all the pieces into a big picture which might give us a glimpse, or even just a hint of the truth. At the same time, we learn more and more about him as a person as well as his past, and we watch him navigate the conundrum of being stuck with a regenerating physical manifestation of his dead lover.
We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos.― Stanisław Lem, Solaris
Just like when it comes to the scientific segments of the book, Lem is also a master at exploring the inner world of his main character. All the thoughts, emotions, worries, hopes and desires swirling within him are clearly defined and their origins made understandable. At the same time, we can’t help but ask the question as to what we’d do in his stead; rather than making us judge him, he forces us to think.
The other characters, though we get to learn less about them than our protagonist, still add interesting elements to the study, often providing counterpoints or alternate views of the situation. They serve a specific purpose, and appear no more or less than required.
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There are a multitude of philosophical questions which also poke their noses at us along the way, and ultimately the author touches upon a vast array of ideas. Those include the nature of intelligence and how it can exist in unrecognizable forms, the extent to which we can know ourselves, and the ever-important ability to move on.
The Final Verdict
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem has rightfully earned its place in the pantheon of the greatest and most influential science-fiction stories of the twentieth century. Touching on numerous subjects of scientific and philosophical nature, the novel also bears an intriguing plot playing masterfully on our curiosity.
If you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t gotten acquainted with this timeless classic yet, then I highly recommend you do so; it very much holds up even by modern standards.
(September 12, 1921 – March 27, 2006)
Stanislaw Lem was a Polish author of science-fiction as well as numerous essays on subjects including philosophy, literary criticism and futurology. He is best-known for the 1961 novel Solaris, turned into a feature film on three occasions, one of them directed by Andrey Tarkovsky. He has received a whole list of awards, including the 1996 Order of the White Eagle and the 2005 Medal of Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis