Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem

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Solaris tells the tale of an entire planet that is sentient and it’s machinations and effects on the scientific researchers who visit the strange globe from which the book derives it’s name. Its a cool idea, an ocean, covering most of a planet that can think and act based on those thoughts. The ocean defies physics and has had human researcher’s baffled since it’s discovery some decades before the novel takes place.

Kris Kelvin arrives at Solaris Station to find that the researchers are shook up, dead or dying or living in self imposed exile. As Kelvin struggles to do his job under in-optimal conditions he begins to have delusions and visions and visitations as he seems to slowly go insane. An old lover appears to him, despite her suicide years earlier, and he struggles to find the meaning of this torment. It seems that the other scientists are undergoing similar delusions. Kelvin races to find the answer before it is all too late.

Lem writes beautifully and the feeling of madness and disbelief is palpable. The main message to be taken away from Solaris is that communication between humanity and any other form of consciousness is futile and will almost certainly end in dismal failure. Any alien man encounters will be so vastly different we might as well attempt conversations with an ant hive mind or a herring. There is an overbearing sense of darkness peppered with distrust and outright hostility that pervades the book but these all come from the human characters and their reactions to the situations thrown up by the Solaris entity.

It is interesting to note that the English translation of this Polish novel has been deemed second rate by the author, himself fluent in English. It is a shame because even as a second rate translation it is a powerful and moving book but it seems unlikely that another translation effort will be forthcoming. Lem also has derided the three film adaptations saying that the book is called Solaris, and not ‘Love in Space’, as all three focus on the returned dead rather than the psychological and philosophical themes that are at the books core. That said, the 2002 version staring George Clooney is certainly watchable, despite avoiding all of the difficult questions asked in the novel.

Solaris is a complex and deep novel that is worth the time and effort. A must for scifi lovers everywhere. Extra points for learning Polish for the sole reason of reading the book in it’s original and apparently superior form.

4 Stars

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