Sunday, July 3, 2016

Solaris by Stanislaus Lem

A confrontation with the alien means a confrontation with oneself

Kris Kelvin, research scientist, is dispatched to Solaris, a distant planet, to work on an orbiting space station. The second he lands, he understands something is dreadfully wrong. Dr. Gilbarian, his contact, has committed suicide, and the two remaining scientists are tight lipped about the circumstances. In addition, the space station is wracked with strange noises and apparent apparitions although these apparitions also seem quite fleshy and insistent. Humans have been studying Solaris for decades – a planet with two suns, covered by a strange oily sea. This sea creates giant imitations of the scientific equipment – gigantic facsimiles rising from the sea like flakey icebergs.  After several months or years, these structures collapse back into the waves. But now the scientists have bombarded the intelligent ocean with x-rays, and the facsimiles, the encystments, Lem calls them, that are now produced are human forms with human memories, emerging from the deepest part of the scientists’ subconscious. These forms, however, lack calluses on their feet, must stay in sight of their “beloved” at all times, and cannot, no matter how hard they try, die.

What I liked about this novel is that it began like a total Buck Rogers adventure, highly technical and highly boring. I thought about giving up, then the story got suddenly deep and good. The novel went off in two directions - a tender exploration of domestic love and highly cerebral musings about the nature of intelligence, the nature of individuality. The novel starts riffing on scientific language, and on sensuously written descriptions of Solaris’s two suns, and the ever present rolling oily sea, whose mimicking waves are muscular and insistent. The humans cannot figure Solaris out and that fact drives them crazy. They study and study the liquid patterns. What they end up really needing to understand is not the alien planet, but themselves. This was an amazing creation of the imagination.

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