Solaris By Stanislaw Lem
My first knowledge of Solaris came for me in the form of the 2002 Steven Soderbergh film, which I still love to this day. Only years later did I learn that it was based off of the novel written by Stanislav Lem. I could never find the book in my local library, and got caught up reading other books. Until this year, when I finally bought it for myself.
The back flap of the book reads:
When psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives on the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds himself confronting a painful memory embodied in the physical likeness of a past lover. Kelvin learns that he is not alone in this, and that other crews examining the planet are plagued with their own repressed and newly real memories. Could it be, as Solaris scientists speculate, that the ocean may be a massive neural center creating these memories, for a reason no one can identify?
Long considered a classic, Solaris asks the question: Can we understand the universe around us without first understanding what lies within?
The start of the novel begins with Kelvin’s launch from another station to travel to Solaris. Unlike the film, the Solaris station is not in orbit, but rather floating several hundred meters above its surface.
The introduction to the other crew members on the station is one of an eerie, too quiet meeting. The third member Gibarian, committed suicide before Kelvin’s arrival. Snow and Sartorius are clearly disturbed, and refuse to explain what’s been happening on the station. They both figure he will see for himself soon enough, and he does.
Kelvin delves into the onbaord library, occupying some of his time reading over the works of the many scientists who have studied Solaris, their theories, observations, etc. He tries to reason with Sartorius who has become agoraphobic in his lab, making little headway and getting no further explanation for why.
Kelvin then catches sight of Gibarian’s ‘visitor’ walking through the corridor of the station and then entering his room. The apparition is described as a tall African woman, mostly naked except for a grass skirt. She also later appears in the cold store lying next to Gibarian’s corpse. Terrified, and concerned he may be ill, Kelvin tests himself with mathematical equations to check if he has gone insane. To his dismay, he hasn’t.
Soon, Kelvin has his own visitor, Rheya, his past lover who committed suicide years before. She acts childlike and has no memory of living on Earth, or her suicide. An odd detail I picked up on was that when she appeared, her dress has no seams, or fasteners to remove it. She has to be cut out of it. Kelvin is horrified by this Rheya, but continues to act as if she were the real one. At least until he tricks her into a small shuttle and sends her away. The screams he hears while it launches away gradually turn to something inhuman. Eventually, he discovers Gibarian’s scribbled notes, and from their discovers certain books describing a pilot’s account that is nothing less than disturbing.
A second Rheya appears soon after, with no memory of what happened to the first. This Rheya eventually becomes more human to Kelvin, and he cannot send her away. We see her come to question her existence, her own half remembered memories, but she is shown to truly love Kelvin. She even attempts suicide, but her strange physiology won’t allow her to die. Whether she is a facsimile, or not, he loves her. As she doubts her own nature while Kelvin intends to keep her, Rheya disappears with little explanation.
The ocean of Solaris itself is an enigma. It is an oily red-black mass who’s movement is compared to muscle contractions rather than currents. It is observed creating large structures known as symmetriads, assymetriads, mimoids, and extensors. These immense intricate creations are thrust from the living sea only to die back into its depths. There is no rhyme or reason known for why it does this, nor how or why it creates the visitors.
Toward the end of the book, Kelvin has a discussion with Snow that struck me. They are talking about the imperfect god concept in how it must relate to the ocean.
Taking a few bits from Kelvin’s dialogue. :
“A god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is … a sick god, whose ambitions exceed his his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems or mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, and which measures his unending defeat.“
“This god has no existence outside of matter. He would like to free himself from matter, but he cannot…”
Then he states:
“No, not the ocean either. Somewhere in its development it has probably come close to divine state, but turned back into itself too soon. It is more like an anchorite, a hermit of the cosmos, not a god. It repeats itself, Snow, and the being I’m thinking of would never do that. Perhaps he has already been born, in some corner of the galaxy, and soon he will have some childish enthusiasm that will set him putting out one star and lighting another. We will notice him after a while…”
The above statement almost sounds as if it suggest that something grew out of the ocean of Solaris, in essence making the ocean its cradle. There is also the idea that the ocean is child-like entity on the way to becoming a god. Kelvin states jokingly that they’ve all been the baby’s toys for a while.
The end of the novel ends with a unique interaction between Kelvin and the ocean. He leaves the station on a small aircraft and lands on a fleshy mimoid( a hard protrusion the ocean no longer seems to control) and reaches out to the ocean with his hand. It reacts to him and curiously wraps about his hand, even forming a flower-like structure, and then falls away. He is able to repeat this interaction a few times before the ocean loses interest. He seems to feel himself forgiving this strange entity for everything. It is implied that Kelvin stays, even as he knows his reasons may not rational, in the hopes that he will one day see Rheya again.
An incredible read, and several welcome differences from the Soderbergh film. Those changes added more detail to fleshing out what Solaris may actually be, and some of the strange behaviors not seen on film. Though, I think doing those giant structures on film would’ve been amazing to see.
Definitely suggest this as reading material for anyone who loves science fiction. Truly alien stuff in this novel.
Also wanted to post a few pages I found on some amazing Solaris inspired artwork. I don’t want to post any images without permission, but I will supply the links for you to take a look.
Black & white artwork of the ocean structures
A Deviant Art Artist- Amazing work!
Next review : The Forever War