Tag Archives: Stephen Soderbergh

33. Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

9 Sep

Stanislas Lem Solaris

Stanislaw Lem is a cult Polish sci-fi writer from the 1960s, who has written some of the most intense and twisted books I’ve ever read about alien contact, with this one, Solaris, being the most famous and one of the best. People in America have heard of it because of the 2002 George Clooney film directed by Stephen Soderbergh. There’s also a very famous Russian adaptation from 1972 by director Andrei Tarkovsky.

The book starts, as Lem books tend to, with a guy strapping into a one-man space pod and launching himself into the cosmos. In this case he’s Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, going to a research station on the planet Solaris. Things start to go wrong immediately, even in flight, when Kelvin’s capsule goes off course and the space station doesn’t answer his emergency call. He lands, and finds the place trashed. Of the three scientists aboard, one is dead and the other two seem to have gone insane…..

The planet Solaris is covered by an enormous ocean, which Kelvin is there to study. It’s only in chapter two that we learn this:

“…it had been accepted that the ocean was an organic formation (at that time, no one had yet dared to call it living). But, while the biologists considered it as a primitive formation—a sort of gigantic entity, a fluid cell, unique and monstrous (which they called prebiological), surrounding the globe with a colloidal envelope several miles thick in places—the astronomers and physicists asserted that it must be an organic structure, extraordinarily evolved.”

And where is this delightful creature, in relationship to our protagonist, Kelvin?

“….some hundreds of meters below the metal hull of the Station, obscured at the moment by the shadows of the four-hour night.”

Anyone wishing to avoid spoilers should stop here, and go read the book, which is terrifying and spectacular.

Human scientists have been experimenting on the ocean for years, either without result, or with results they’re unable to acknowledge.  The ocean has now decided to experiment back, by providing the human occupants of the station a near-perfect reproduction of the person they most desire, basically peeling out the nastiest inner layer of the subconscious, and making it visible. The love-creatures are superhuman, made of the alien substance, and display an imperfect grasp of personality.

Lem is a hard-core gearhead, though, and he doesn’t care that much about love, desire or shame. The set-up is a device for a speculation on alien contact, on the theory that we can’t make contact because our selves, mainly our desires, will get in the way and blind us. This happens for political reasons—Kelvin discovers that evidence of previous experiments by the ocean has been dismissed—but mostly for psychological ones. There’s a thought-gulf too large to cross. Men, in their perversity and solipsism, desire alien contact, but only of the type that reflects them. The ocean, in Lem’s figuring, gives men just what they’re looking for.

It’s a brilliant, fast, creepy read….. I highly recommend it.