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Solaris, Stanislaw Lem, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, 204 pp., translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, originally published in 1961

Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction writer, has written many fascinating, satirical, and erudite works in the genre. Solaris, likely Lem's most famous book for English readers, takes a very different approach to a common idea in science fiction: first contact. Lem creates a stunning blend of satire and hard science; he is an intelligent writer, perhaps a bit unsympathetic to his audience, but his skill and insight are undeniable. Solaris displays relatively solid characterization and a fairly straightforward storyline. Lem's ideas fuel the book's genius.

Solaris starts with a bang. Kris Kelvin, the main character, blasts off through the galaxy on a mission to the planet Solaris. Solaris has always been an enigma, as we learn within a few chapters. The planet is covered by a living ocean, presumed to be a singular, sentient organism, but theories as to the nature of the lifeform vary wildly and no contact has ever been verifiably made between humans and the giant organism. Kelvin has been called to Solaris Station, but when he arrives, he finds the station in shambles, one of the three scientists dead, and the other two acting strangely. Kelvin has a chance to look through the belongings of the dead scientist, Gibarian, but can't find too many clues. Of the remaining two scientists, Snow is talkative but won't answer Kelvin's questions and Sartorius is barricaded in his lab.

Lem gives us a brief history of the futile exploration of Solaris, by way of Kelvin's attempts to figure out what has happened. Kelvin even thinks that he is merely hallucinating everything (a problem that also happened in Lem's The Futurological Congress). Kelvin's ingenious solution: he asks the computer on a nearby satellite to solve a series of orbital equations, hides the answer without looking at it, then laboriously works out the equation for himself. The answers match, meaning that the chaos and death on the station are real. What then is the explanation? Soon enough, Kelvin finds out for himself. In the fifth chapter, the manifestation of Rheya, Kelvin's long dead lover, arrives in his bedroom. This Rheya avatar is clearly based on Kelvin's memories of her because she knows about people that Kelvin met after her death. If this Rheya is blasted into a different orbit, another one shows up within a few hours with no memory of what happened. How is Solaris doing this? And why? Rheya's presence is incredibly painful to Kelvin due to the nature of her death: Kelvin left the relationship in a callous manner and Rheya subsequently committed suicide.

Once Kelvin has had some time to interact with Rheya, he begins to understand the reactions of the other scientists, from the suicide of Gibarian to the mental cracking of Snow to the reclusive behaviour of Sartorius. If his avatar causes such anguish, how much more so could this happen for the others? Kelvin and Snow have many discussions about the nature of Solaris and its motivations but they never seem to develop a deeper rapport. Meanwhile, the relationship between Kelvin and Rheya becomes more intense; Snow castigates Kelvin about this, but Kelvin can't seem to help it. For example, the two share their feelings but Rheya stops Kelvin from telling more about her 'original': "'So that you won't forget that I am the one who is here, not her'" (146). The ending takes a tragic turn, which demonstrates both Rheya's humanity and Kelvin's changing attitude. However, it also turns the essential point of story back into Kelvin's character, which means that the appeal of the book depends almost entirely on our like or dislike of Kelvin.

Lem's main idea is that we can never understand the alien, the truly Other. When we try to theorize methods of understanding, we inevitably anthropomorphize, and that means to fail, inevitably. Lem develops these ideas both overtly and in the course of the story. Snow goes on a long rant about space colonization that is quite compelling:

We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death... And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be a sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos... We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. (72)

Lem also pounds this point home with a Gulliver's Travels-style ending (after his fourth journey in the land of the Houyhnhnms, the intelligent horses, Gulliver comes home to England, and instead of acting on what he has learned, he spends his time in the stable, talking to his stallion, and ignoring his wife). Kelvin and Snow think that they have solved the mystery of Solaris, but this final theory is the most anthropomorphic of any hypothesis in the book. Earlier in Solaris, Kelvin reads a booklet that tries to "demonstrate that the most abstract achievements of science, the most advanced theories and victories of mathematics [represent] nothing more than a stumbling, one or two-step progression from our rude, prehistoric, anthropomorphic understanding of the universe around us" (170). Kelvin thinks he is above this limitation and becomes the modern day Gulliver -- he becomes the object of the satire in a very painful way.

Lem's novel is filled with complex, hard-hitting irony and radically different than most science fiction novels about first contact. Solaris has its own type of exhilaration, one that shouldn't be missed.

See the reviews of the original movie version and the recent remake.

First posted: May 17, 1998; Last modified: February 1, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #3 | Reviews | Columns | Stanislaw Lem

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