Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Summer Reading: Solaris

The cover from the 2002 edition attempts
 to capitalize on elements of romance further
developed in the film version.; the novel,
 however, is more concerned with the
relationship between the planet and it's
 protagonist, Kris Kelvin. 
Continuing my unplanned tour through the literary universe of science-fiction classics, I recently concluded a reading of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (1960), or, to be specific, the common translation of the French edition published in 1971 by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. If you are familiar with either the 1972 (directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) or 2002 (directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney) film versions, the novel has a very different bent from both. Having recently re-watched (and enjoyed each for different reasons) both films, the novel is a much more satisfying traditional science-fiction experience. While both films focus primarily on the romantic relationship between primary characters, Lem's Solaris is much more a meditation on the relationship between man and the unknown.

At 19.00 hours, ship's time, I made my way to the launching 
bay. The men around the shaft stood aside to let me pass,
 and I climbed down into the capsule. (page 1)

Told from the first person perspective of the novel's protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin, Solaris details his experiences on a mission to the space station orbiting the planet. When his former instructor, Dr. Gibarian, and the crew of the space station begin experiencing some unusual anomalies, Kelvin is sent to determine what is amiss. When he arrives on the space station, Gibarian has recently committed suicide and much of who and what he encounters causes Kelvin to question both his own sanity as well as the intentions of the planet.

"Those are not facts, Kelvin. They are not even propositions. They are theories. 
You could say that it has taken account of our desires locked into secret recesses of 
our brains. Perhaps it was sending us... presents." Snow to Kelvin (192)

One of the themes explored by Lem is the implication of man's desire for contact with extraterrestrial life when no common ground exists on which the two species can connect. This issue stems from the assumption on the parts of most sci-fi (and UFO)  aficionados that should we encounter aliens they will in all likelihood physically resemble humans or at the very least communicate in a manner that is decipherable by humanity. In Solaris, the "alien" encountered (a planet-sized organism!) is so unique to humanity's experiences, that the shared efforts to  communicate or interact by both parties are seen as potentially aggressive in nature. When humanity seeks understanding of Solaris' perceived planetary surface via exposing it to an array of elements and radiation (a normal scientific response to an unknown would be assessing the discovery's response to certain stimuli), Solaris responds in kind by initiating interaction by creating physical manifestations drawn from the memories of loss each human visitor holds.

I closed my eyes. Her [Rheya's] heart was beating against mine. Her heart? 
A mere appendage, I told myself. But nothing surprised me any longer, 
not even my own indifference. ... (91)

It is the nature of the relationship between Kris and his "visitor", his late wife Rheya, that creates the opening for the romantic elements developed in both films. Here, though, Kris (and the reader) are much more aware of some of Solaris' physical properties which might account for the more analytical approach. The focus of the philosophical questions posed by the novel seem trained on the humanity-alien relationship rather than the human-human one.

Genius and mediocrity are dumbfounded by the teeming 
diversity of the oceanic formations of Solaris; no man has 
ever become genuinely conversant with them... (111)

Lem effectively conveys a scientific-sounding basis for the alien life form. The reader is given a significant amount of background on Solaris' composition and topography as Kelvin makes these discoveries for himself. Because he is led to review articles and documents cataloged on the space station while following clues left behind by the deceased Gibarian, Kelvin serves as Lem's vehicle for exposition. Kelvin's review of the research provides a detailed introduction to a somewhat sentient planet, though offers no resolution to some questions--how could it? Because the story is told from the protagonist's perspective the answers the reader craves cannot be answered as if the tale were being told my a third-person omniscient narrator.

Solaris by Stainslaw Lem is a classic in large part because of the deep philosophical questions it poses. This brief post does not even scratch the surface of all that Solaris touches upon (suicide, for example).  Despite potentially off-putting scientific language and an absence of traditional resolution, I found Solaris to be a very accessible and engaging (if nontraditional) summer read. The question I always find myself posing after reading good science-fiction, is "why aren't more ANY of these part of high school English curriculum?" Novels such as these (I would exclude the trendy and popular approved school reading list novels The Hunger Games or Twilight) strike me as a completely untapped reading resource for a variety of purposes...

From Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials (1987)

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