Solaris (novel)  

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“...to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space... As Solaris' author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled "Solaris" and not "Love in Outer Space".”— Stanislaw Lem, 2002

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Solaris is a 1961 Polish science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem. The book is about the ultimate inadequacy of communication between human and non-human species.

In probing and examining the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris from a hovering research station the human scientists are, in turn, being studied by the sentient planet itself, which probes for and examines the thoughts of the human beings who are analyzing it. Solaris has the ability to manifest their secret, guilty concerns in human form, for each scientist to personally confront.

Solaris is one of Lem’s philosophic explorations of man’s anthropomorphic limitations. First published in Warsaw in 1961, the 1970 Polish-to-French-to-English translation of Solaris is the best-known of Lem's English-translated works.

Plot summary

Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Solaris is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism. Terran scientists concluded it is a sentient being and are attempting communication with it.

Kris Kelvin arrives aboard Solaris Station, a scientific research station hovering near the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris. The scientists there have studied the planet and its ocean for many decades, mostly in vain. A scientific discipline known as Solaristics over the years has degenerated to simply observing, recording and categorizing the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Thus far, they have only compiled an elaborate nomenclature of the phenomena — yet do not understand what such activities really mean. Shortly before psychologist Kelvin's arrival, the crew has exposed the ocean to a more aggressive and unauthorized experimentation with a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Their experimentation gives unexpected results and becomes psychologically traumatic for them as individually flawed humans.

The ocean's response to their intrusion exposes the deeper, hidden aspects of the personalities of the human scientists — while revealing nothing of the ocean’s nature itself. To the extent that the ocean’s actions can be understood, the ocean then seems to test the minds of the scientists by confronting them with their most painful and repressed thoughts and memories. It does this via the materialization of physical simulacra, including human ones; Kelvin confronts memories of his dead lover and guilt about her suicide. The torments of the other researchers are only alluded to.

The ocean’s intelligence expresses physical phenomena in ways difficult for the protagonists to explain using conventional scientific method, which deeply upsets the scientists. The alien mind of Solaris is so greatly different from the human mind that attempts at inter-species communications are a dismal failure.

Characters

The protagonist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, is a psychologist recently arrived from Earth to the space station studying the planet Solaris. He was married to Rheya (Harey in the original Polish), who committed suicide when he abandoned their marriage. Her exact double is his visitor aboard the space station and becomes an important character.

Snow (Snaut in Polish) is the first person Kelvin meets aboard the station, and his visitor is not shown. The last inhabitant Kelvin meets is Sartorius, the most reclusive member of the crew. He shows up only intermittently and is always suspicious of the other crewmembers. His visitor remains anonymous, yet there are indications it might be a child with a straw hat.

Until recently, there was also another member of the crew, Gibarian, who had been an instructor of Kelvin's at university, and who committed suicide just hours before Kelvin came to the station. Gibarian's visitor was a "giant Negress" who twice appears to Kelvin; first in a hallway soon after his arrival, and then while he is examining Gibarian's cadaver. She seems to be unaware of the other humans she meets, or she simply chooses to ignore them.

Rheya, who killed herself with a lethal injection after quarrelling with Kelvin, returns as his visitor. Overwhelmed with conflicting emotions after confronting her, Kelvin lures the first Rheya visitor into a shuttle and launches it into outer space to be rid of her. Her fate is unknown to the other scientists. Snow suggests hailing Rheya's shuttle to learn her condition, but Kelvin objects. Rheya soon reappears but with no memory of the shuttle incident. Moreover, the second Rheya becomes aware of her transient nature and is haunted by being Solaris's means-to-an-end, affecting Kelvin in unknown ways. After listening to a tape recording by Gibarian, and so learning her true nature, she attempts suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. This fails because her body is made of neutrinos, stabilized by some unknown force field, and has both incredible strength and the ability to quickly regenerate from all injuries. She subsequently convinces Snow to destroy her with a Sartorius-developed device that disrupts the sub-atomic structure of the constructs (visitors).

See also





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