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Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

[Points to note before I continue: My copy of Solaris purports to be the 1970 translation (Polish --> French --> English) by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. Said copy is extremely dodgy, for reasons I shall not explicitly state but which any reasonably internet-savvy policeperson can guess. So if I talk about something and you go, what the hell that wasn't in the book, it is the fault of my dodgy copy. (I forgot to order it, mkay? It's not locally available.)

I'm not going to harp on and on about the prose. To recap: The English translation used the French translation as its source text. Lem sold the rights to the book to his Polish publishers way back when, and for whatever reason, they have not commissioned another translation, despite what wikipedia assures me if the general hue and cry for it. Apparently Lem's other works - Cyberiad at the very least - received more attention, and therefore did not flatly lump around in English, describing a great deal in monotone grey.]

Solaris was my first (only) Lem, and it’s stayed with me for years because of what I consider to be the utter beauty of its closing moments. (More and more, the fact that I have not ordered a copy looks like wilful negligence.)

Kris Kelvin (who is not a Superhero, alas) leaves the Prometheus in a little space capsule that takes him down to Solaris, an extremely watery planet with one single, very likely living, sentient ocean. He is to join Gibarian, Snow and Sartorius in finding ways to establish Contact with the ocean – Contact remains the Holy Grail of all Solarists, and over the course of a hundred years, a great deal of capital, labour and sundry other investments, several missions and a good few lives, no one has managed to do anything other than establish that the ocean is alive, is fairly up-to-date on quantum physics, and maintains itself in ways impossible to interpret, translate or otherwise understand.

The opening few pages of Solaris establish Kris Kelvin as an observant man, an impatient one. It also establishes one of the quieter themes of the novel – Kelvin, and every one else in this novel, and presumably the rest of humanity, are in a symbiotic relationship with their constructed instruments. Their things. Kelvin falls from Prometheus to Solaris, and everything he sees is filtered through his capsule, his suit. When he reaches the Station the first signs of disorder are apparent in the mess left when things are not cleared up. Kelvin is greeted, somewhat belatedly, by Snow, a renowned cybernetist and Gibarian’s deputy on Solaris. Snow is, to put it mildly, distraught, terrified, drunk. Kelvin’s careful, methodical observational approach to life fall apart as he is immersed in Snow’s paranoia, and his own oppressive sense of being watched, pressured – this almost surreal paranoia doesn’t let up until almost the end of the novel. Snow is perhaps in the worst possible state to welcome a new member of the team. Sartorius is ensconced in his lab, Gibarian is, apparently, dead, and no one will tell Kelvin what is going on. Kelvin is your generally calm, competent scientist/researcher, but his first response to this perpetual mystery and stone-walling is to lose his temper, and to do something.

What is happening? The scientists on the station are being visited be seemingly authentic, exact personifications of their deepest shames and concerns. For Kelvin, this is Rheya (Harvy in the original) – his wife who committed suicide ten years ago. Rheya, following what other personifications of the other scientist’s manifestations have presumably done, appears while Kelvin is asleep, with no memory of how she came to be there or what happened, with no idea that she is not “real”. When Kelvin sends her away in a space shuttle, a new Rheya appears the next morning.

We never see Snow’s and Sartorius’ ‘visitors’. From their general behaviour, once realises that Kelvin got off lucky, with his young Anais-Nin-esque wife. Sartorius and Snow display a frantic terror barely kept under wraps, dealing with their ghosts in their own, now very nonfunctional ways.

While they wrestle with the problems of how to make their ‘visitors’ go away, Kelvin has embraced Rheya – a second chance for him to love his wife, conceptualised now perfectly on his terms – and does not want her to die.

And all the while, the planet is watching.

While it is assumed the ocean below is learning about them through their simulated, manifested subconscious personae, they in turn cannot understand the ocean below. Why is it doing this? What are these “visitors” made of? Are they “real”, “alive”?

Solaris is a Structuralist’s extended wet dream about humanity’s immersion in its own symbols, our incapacity to look outside of these constructs to understand an outside alien force that is not immersed in these constructs. And vice versa. The ocean cannot understand us at the conscious level – as far as human science can tell, there is only one ocean, one unit of life on the planet as it is. Even if Contact could be coherently established, what would it benefit either party?

As tensions rise and Kelvin, Snow and Sartorius debate what they must report back to Earth, what they must recommend, what they must do, Rheya – seemingly unlike other “visitors” – learns what she is, or rather what she isn’t. Her own struggle is not overtly expressed save through Kelvin, who is our only narrator. I liked Rheya, and how we see this real, unreal person face issues in her own way, always unexpected by the man who is her “source”, and who acts as though he’s her maker. Rheya, both Rheyas, are a Pyrrhic victory of self-definition.

Solaris is so chock-full of exposition and theory that it is hard to see what its plot is. Kelvin shows up at the tail end of a long, horrible, terrifying time, and closes his narrative before any final actions are taken. But there is so much theorising, so much exposition – let me note here that Kelvin is, for once, a scientist who reminds me of scientists who write for the public today. He shows the same knowledge of his field not just as a science but as an area of human society with schools of thought, a culture, and most importantly a history. It makes for fascinating reading, and I enjoyed Solaris best at these “popular science” moments – there is so much exposition of Things To Consider that I do not feel like the plot-limitations detract. However, if you’re looking for an exciting novel with brash, cocky, feisty, brilliant scientists who kick the conservative establishments arse and ride off into the ocean sunset with dolphins, you’re reading the wrong book.

For the other scientists in particular one gathers the impression of a torment that has drawn out too long. Kelvin is not a bad man, or an insensitive one, but under this time of stress he is not the most perceptive, nor is this time of stress perhaps one that lends itself to bonding and shared strength, however much one might wish it. Kelvin himself is a solid, obviously alive character, but we learn very little about his life, his times, himself as a man. Rheya is our only clue to what sort of person he is outside of work. I found this absence of knowledge both frustrating and satisfying. Solaris is not about the individual humans on the Station; it is about Solaris.

I’ve already mentioned that final scene. It’s a gentle closing, haunting, almost graceful. It reminds the reader in English of Solaris’ inadvertently hidden strength – a rich, descriptive narrative that shows us very clearly this world we cannot understand.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody. But I like it!

[First posted at The Pearls Are Cooling


Camilla,  24.04.10 17:19

Question the first: "Apparently Lem's other works - Cyberiad at the very least - received more attention, and therefore did not flatly lump around in English, describing a great deal in monotone grey." What does that mean? I have read it four times now and am still completely baffled.

I have yet to read this (somehow I bypassed it in my exploration of Lem), but I have ordered it (after looking for it without any luck in Rome, Milan, London and Edinburgh -- why does no one stock this book? This lady at a shop in St. Pancras told me they had none stocked, but ten on order -- although that is not entirely true: I found one in Edinburgh but it had George Clooney on the cover) and hope to read it soon.

What you write makes reminds me of His Master's Voice, in the problem of communication and the structuralist attitude to symbols and language. The plots seem very different, of course, but that is another book with a frustrated scientist who cannot quite be a hero. I think you would like it.

Roh,  25.04.10 17:16

Ick re: Clooney. I like Clooney but he should not be on Solaris' cover.

"Apparently Lem's other works - Cyberiad at the very least - received more attention, and therefore did not flatly lump around in English, describing a great deal in monotone grey."

a. This is a very badly written sentence.
b. I am sorry about that. :(
c. It means:
c.i. Lem's other works have been translated into English.
c.ii. The book I have heard the most about re: its English translation is Cyberiad
c.iii. These books, but Cyberiad that I have specifically heard of, have received attention for being better translated than Solaris.
c.iv. This means that these other, non-Solaris translations had prose that did not "flatly lump around in English, describing a great deal in monotone grey".
d. In conclusion, the English translation of Solaris is an exception to the usual run of Lem-to-English translations, in that it is not a good one.



Camilla,  25.04.10 17:20

It annoys me when people sit on the rights to books that have not been translated well. Like The Second Sex in English. It annoys me a lot. One day, when Tor is sufficiently proficient in martial arts and has got his own katana, I am going to make him do something about it.
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who did lem sell his english rights to solaris to?