Friday, March 11, 2022

"Solaris" by Stanislaw Lem--Fiction Review

What do you think extraterrestrial life would be like? What would it be like to try and communicate with it? Clearly, Stanislaw Lem has given it a lot of thought in his book, “Solaris,” which is the science fiction story we’re talking about today, Obscurists.

Stanislaw Lem

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“Solaris” is a weird story, and I love a good, weird story. Ultimately it’s a story about first contact, but how Lem goes about first contact with an alien species or—in this story’s case—with a single vast sentient entity is he throws out pretty much all of our expectations. If we ever do make first contact with an extraterrestrial form of life, I’m sure the supreme frustration of attempting it, like in this book, will be true to life.

The sentient ocean of “Solaris” is one of those few exceptions to my prohibition on unknowable characters—rarely do I like them. Typically I ascribe this quality to malevolent or at least unscrupulous characters, but the living ocean of Solaris just is

For an old sci-fi novel, “Solaris” not only does atmosphere very well but character too, which is often not what the genre is known to focus on, typically those elements get sacrificed for big ideas. I should temper that praise, though, mainly I found Dr. Kelvin and his “visitor,” to not spoil too much, to be the most compelling characters in the story. The atmosphere and setting are always uncanny, so there is no higher praise from me—I love uncanny settings like I love a good haunted house.

What I don’t love about this book:

There is a listlessness to this book at times. It sometimes feels like things are just happening to happen and then to be discussed by the characters. A lot. 

While I find its peculiarities interesting and the characters engaging, the plot isn’t, well, much of anything. It can be summed up as; an odd planet with an odd living ocean is visited by waves of baffled scientists, who remain baffled after studying the planet with great interest and vigor. One day our protagonist visits Solaris and is likewise baffled. The end.

So we ultimately start and end in the same position, and while the marking time in place might be interesting and compelling in its own way, the story doesn’t progress anywhere.

There are also themes of self-harm in this book, so if that’s going to be a problem, I’d suggest skipping this novel. I believe those themes are legitimate things to talk about in a story, and even some of my favorite stories bring it up, but still, not my favorite bits of any story.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Dr. Kelvin, our main character, arrives at Solaris Station, which researches primarily the vast living ocean present on the planet Solaris. Right from the jump, things are weird. One of the crew, an old mentor of Kelvin’s, had killed himself right before Kelvin arrived. The two surviving crew members of the station don’t seem all that broken up about it. 

Then Kelvin starts noticing evidence of more people than there should be present on Solaris station but can’t seem to ever interact with them. It appears that the crew has “visitors” they can’t explain how they appear. Kelvin never directly interacts with any of these visitors, that is, until he unexpectedly receives his own visitor, a young woman named Harey, who Kelvin knows well. They were once lovers until she had killed herself years prior.

This takes Kelvin aback, and he reacts poorly at first to being reunited with Harey and tricks her into a shuttle pod, which he then launches into space.

Soon after, a second Harey inexplicably shows up at Solaris station, just as she was before she’d died and totally ignorant of the fate of the first copy of Harey. Kelvin doesn’t seek to do away with her and finds himself in a peculiar limbo of picking up where he left off with his old lover. Of course, he, the man of science, does several tests on her. What he finds is that she is a perfect copy all the way down to just about the sub-atomic level. Her memories, at least before her successful suicide attempt, are perfect too, which is unsettling.

Kelvin, understandably distracted, becomes fixated on his visitor, who acts, talks, and even thinks exactly like her original. And herein lies the rub—Harey was clearly unstable, and this latest version of her is just as disturbed. She’s convinced that Kelvin is disgusted by her and wants to be rid of her, and when she discovers that she’s a copy, the untenable situation isn’t improved. It isn’t long until Harey tries to kill herself again by drinking liquid oxygen, but as a product of Solaris’s ocean, she is made of sterner stuff than normal humans. So she fails and heals from her injuries remarkably quickly. 

All of this makes Kelvin even more desperate to prevent her from committing suicide again. They talk about leaving Solaris and resettling on Earth—basically a second chance. They both know they’re kidding themselves, though, and Harey does eventually succeed in self-annihilation again with the help of one of the other scientists on the research station.

Kelvin is despondent and angry at everything and everyone—especially the ocean of Solaris for putting him through this little experiment. A new Harey never appears, and the other visitors disappear too.

In the end, Kelvin is forced to realize that he doesn’t know why the living ocean did what it did. Was it motivated by malice, misplaced generosity, or maybe just curiosity?


The point of “Solaris,” in my opinion, is that in the grand scheme of things, even the most important things to us like love, connection, and our own unique individual identities—to the greater universe or its denizens, means little or nothing. Despite having a tragic love story as its core, “Solaris” isn’t a love story.

In any traditional love story, no matter how old, the characters in love and the love they share are the dominant element of the story. It doesn’t matter if that love story ends happily ever after or tragically—such as this one does. Love is the most important thing in that narrative, even, oddly, to the characters that only orbit that love story. 

That emphatically isn’t the case in “Solaris.” The other scientists on the station with Kelvin are too wrapped up in their own issues the living ocean confronts them with to do more than vaguely comment on Kelvin’s issues with his long-dead girlfriend, inexplicably resurrected. The ultimate gut-punch of the story is that the living ocean, which made all of this possible, didn’t go about constructing the visitors built from the inhabitants of Solaris Station’s minds for any human-like motive. It just did what it did for its own purposes, and it’s heavily implied that it views one human being in love with another human with all the fanfare of considering why one apple is red and another green.

The final effect of the story is to demonstrate how small we and our lives are and how little that means to the universe.

Parting thoughts:

So that analysis is pretty bleak. I’ll give you that. Stanislaw Lem was a Polish writer and central to eastern European writers—and Russian writers—have a reputation for taking melancholy to new heights. Try reading Franz Kafka or Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Anyway, before I stray too far from what I wanted to talk about here, let’s talk about meaning. Specifically the meaning and worth of our lives. Objectively, there isn’t anything wrong with saying that; for the most part, the universe doesn’t care about you or anyone you know or care about. You are forever destined to see less than one percent of one percent of it—so to expect that Tau Ceti gives a flying fuck about your commute to work on Monday or sent you a “sign” is really asking for a lot.

I am a firm believer that meaning and purpose are local phenomena. You yourself are given the task to provide yourself with meaning and purpose. Which can be awfully scary and a lot of pressure. That’s the primary reason I believe people turn to external sources, real or imagined, to assign them meaning—and purpose. We wrap that feeling of belonging and purpose up with a person, an organization, a calling, a religion, or a god—to the point that if someone or anything questions the objectivity of our purpose giver, we feel personally attacked.

It is an illusion, though, in the grand scheme of things. As individuals, we all have the power to define ourselves in whatever way we like, and we can change those definitions. That is what freedom is at the end of the day. If organizing the perfect bake sale fills you with pride and purpose, that’s good. But it wasn’t the bakesale that gave you meaning or purpose. You gave yourself the purpose of organizing the perfect bakesale. And if the bakesale goes to shit, well, you can direct your energies elsewhere.

This is, of course, easier to do on a superficial level than, say, moving on after a catastrophic breakup from a relationship you may have defined yourself by for thirty years. But the principles and fundamentals are still the same.

We all have a finite amount of time, and you get to choose how to spend it. All I’m saying is maybe think twice about letting other things make that choice for you, either consciously or unconsciously.

No comments:

Post a Comment