Solaris is considered one of Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s greatest books—certainly, it’s his most popular, having been adapted for film three times. But, while the original book was written in Polish, there has not, and still is not, a direct Polish-to-English translation available. The book available in your neighborhood bookstore is in fact an English translation of a French translation of the original Polish. I can’t speak to its quality, since I’m not familiar with the original Polish, but the things I’ve heard have been mixed.
Solaris is the sort of science fiction that I’ve talked about previous where, regardless of what contrivances are used—space aliens, faster-than-light travel, laser guns, time travel, &c.—they are merely tools used to underscore cultural or philosophical questions or assertions that aren’t intrinsically tied to the universe being described.
In Carl Sagan’s Contact, the author broaches the possibility that if an alien intelligence were to communicate with us, they would choose to use mathematics (a “universal” language) do to so. By contrast, Lem offers up this possibility: consider that you find an alien intelligence on some distant planet in a physical form unlike anything we’ve known. What is the likelihood of finding some mutual syntactic basis with which to communicate, mathematical or otherwise? In fact, what is the likelihood that the alien intelligence and our own intelligence are anything alike?
Such is the nature of Solaris, a distant planet in Lem’s imagined future which has no life as we know it: rather, most of its surface is covered by an ocean which appears to be a conscious, single organism. By the time that Kris Kelvin arrives on Station Solaris, the study of the planet has faded away: once a thriving field, years and years of fruitless research have whittled away at its constituents, and most of the scientific community (and, indeed, the non-scientific population) have written the planet and its massive oceanic organism off as an enigma which will never be solved; though it exhibits signs of intelligence, the organism shows no interest or response to human study or attempts at communication (indeed, how would one communicate with an plasmic ocean?).
The output of Solaricist studies, when they thrived, were a detailed (and deadly and costly) list of observed phenomenon—complicated structures made by the ocean, described in a complex nomenclature which says nothing at all about their purpose or meaning. Lem, by way of Kelvin’s internal narration, actually goes to great lengths to show this generated history, citing publications and long-standing theories, well-known scientists and marginalized errata. I was perplexed, at first, as to why so much room in such a slim text would be given over to such things when it was immediately clear that Solaris’s mysteries would not be solved, perhaps ever. It occurred to me only later that Lem is attempting to create in his readers the same mix of wonder, bafflement, and frustration that plagues Kelvin and all the other Solaricists; to be able to observe the ocean’s phenomena, catalog and name them, and be no closer to understanding them than a cockroach is to understanding quantum entanglement.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at Station Solaris, the station’s leader, Gibarian (and the one who sent for him in the first place) is recently dead by his own hand. The only other remaining person on board are the distracted and irritable Dr. Snow and the reclusive Sartorius, barricaded in his lab. Kelvin thinks these are the only two people, anyway, until he sees a large black lady walking down the hall (translated somewhat antiquatedly as “Negress”), and later finds her in the cold storage unit next to Gibarian’s corpse. Kelvin soon learns that the ocean (or so they presume) has been reaching into the deep psyches of the station inhabitants and recreating people from their past in realistic form. Kelvin is soon met by Rheya, an old lover who killed herself after a fight, and whose death (presumably) haunts Kelvin to this day, although I admit to being unmoved by his apparent level of remorse. We never learn who Snow or Sartorius’s visitors are, but they both seem appropriately unnerved or discomfited by their presence.
In later interviews, Lem expressed dismay that the film adaptations of Solaris all focus on Kelvin’s relationship with the Rheya simulacra and his acerbic colleagues: “[My focus on alienness] is why the book was entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space”1. In fact, Kelvin’s odd relationship with the ersatz Rheya is a meagre narrative, and while her growing and terrible sense of self provides a Romantic foil for the book’s more fatalistic tone, it is more useful as a dramatic parallel for Kelvin’s knowledge of Solaris itself, filled with bold and dramatic gestures that communicate nothing at all.
Fundamentally, Solaris is about that notion that mankind will ultimately tame the galaxy, but everywhere we go will simply be transplanting our humanness onto other planets. A location, heretofore alien, is now alien with a human colony; such is the case with Solaris. The important point is that such exploration brings us no further to understanding, because we necessarily express everything in human tropes and human technology. Lem’s desire to depict something fundamentally alien has a devastating effect: Solaris is saturated with an intense loneliness and melancholy, created first by the conceptual remoteness of the enigmatic ocean and then mirrored by the suspicion, terror, and interiority of the inhabitants of Station Solaris.