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Stanisław Lem: Solaris (Solaris)

The greatest film ever made is undoubtedly Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev but, not far behind in the great movies list is his Solaris. The film was based on this book. Unlike, for example, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky did not take an average book and turn it into a great film; rather he already had a great book to work with. This was, in fact, the first book of Lem’s translated into English, though many of his books had already been translated into other languages.

Solaris is a planet discovered some considerable time prior to the start of the book. At first it seems to have no obvious signs of life but, by the time of the start of the book, it has been realised that it does have one life form – the ocean that covers a substantial part of the planet. Numerous books and studies have been carried out on the nature of this life form and whether it is fully conscious. A space station has been set up which automatically hovers over the ocean and whose Earth inhabitants study the ocean. The ocean has not taken all this calmly but has reacted but no-one is exactly sure how. Various expeditions have come unstuck and various pilots have disappeared or had serious problems. At the start of the book, Kris Kelvin is arriving from Earth, while the expedition’s leader, Gibarian, has died.

When he arrives Kelvin finds things a mess. Snow, one of the two surviving human scientists, seems surprised by his arrival and behaves strangely. He is accosted by a strange black woman of whose identity he is unaware. He is unable to get to talk to Sartorius, the other scientist. His investigations reveal that things are not going well on the space station and, since they bombarded the ocean with a massive dose of X-rays, things are getting worse. And then Rheya turns up. One morning he wakes up and finds her sitting at the end of bed. She is not a hallucination but very real. Rheya is his ex-girlfriend/wife. The only problem is that she killed herself ten years previously. Much of the rest of book is devoted to finding out about the nature of the Rheya person, and how to get rid of her as well as speculating on the nature of the ocean. The others have their equivalents but keep them hidden. The black woman was Gibarian’s.

A key science fiction theme is what makes us human and how can we distinguish a human from, say, a very sophisticated robot. This theme has been a staple of science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick. It has also started to become a theme in the real world. Lem cleverly introduces this theme, not through a sophisticated robot but through the projections, such as Rheya. While Kelvin is very much aware – intellectually – that Rheya is not”human”, he still loves and defends her because she has the form and the memories (taken from him) of a human.

What sets this book apart from the usual science fiction novel is that Lem uses this story to speculate on the nature of life and religion (is the ocean the God of Solaris?) but also on the nature of our pasts to present selves (is our past still part of us or is it somehow different – a separate country as L P Hartley maintains?) He does not provide answers. There aren’t any. But the way he poses the question makes this one of the most thoughtful novels of the 20th century. Read the book. See the film

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej
First English translation 1970 by Walker/Faber & Faber