When I was a kid my dad was obsessed with the idea of UFO’s and alien contact. He made me and my brother watch endless episodes of trashy American documentaries about sightings and abductions. In fact, I sat through so many of these that I started to have nightmares about bug-eyed extra terrestrial beings entering my room at night. I guess that for my dad – who did not have a partner, whose children were emotionally, if not physically, estranged from him, and whose job was not exactly stimulating – the promise of other planets and other species, of being whisked away from his humdrum life, must have been pretty appealing. While I too wanted to somehow escape the situation I found myself in, the prospect of other worlds or beings never fired my imagination. I found it difficult enough to get my head around the behaviour and motivations of humans, I had enough problems understanding my own world, that the possibility of engaging meaningfully with aliens struck me as, to all intents and purposes, impossible.
For this same reason, I have never been particularly drawn to Sci-Fi. The writers and books I most enjoy are ones that I believe contain insights about human nature, that help me come to terms with who I am and how my world works. This is, I guess, where Stanislaw Lem comes in. First of all, Lem himself was not particularly enamoured of the genre, he thought the majority of it too reliant upon the adventure story formula. My introduction to the Pole’s work was His Master’s Voice, and, on the basis of that novel, I could see why he considered himself as a kind of outlier in the Science Fiction community. The plot is almost non-existent, and entirely plausible; there are no weird creatures, no space travel. More than anything, His Master’s Voice is a speculative, philosophical novel of ideas that says more about us than it does about what is potentially out there. And so is this one.
Having said that, Solaris provides more conventional, less cerebral enjoyment than His Master’s Voice, and is therefore more approachable. Lem may have been critical of Science Fiction’s use of the adventure story formula, but the dynamics of Solaris’ plot are borrowed from the equally formulaic horror/thriller genre. Doctor Kris Kelvin arrives on the space station that has been studying the planet Solaris, and which is meant to be manned by three other people. However, Kelvin finds that one of them is blind drunk and clearly spooked, one has locked himself in his laboratory, and the other is dead. Of course, he is suspicious and senses that something is wrong. Not only is Snow visibly shaken, but he has blood on his hands; alarming noises are coming from Sartorius’ lab; and Kelvin himself feels as though he is being watched. As the narrative progresses things get even stranger: there are, it is revealed, other people on board and it is not clear how they got there or whether they are friendly.
“Successive bursts of static came through the headphones, against a background of deep, low-pitched murmuring, which seemed to me the very voice of the planet itself.”
While all this is lots of fun, and genuinely tense and unnerving at times, especially if you haven’t seen either of the two film adaptations, if it was all Solaris had to offer it’s unlikely that I would rate the book so highly. In order to begin to explain why I do I would, first of all, point to a quote from the text, which is ‘“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” This, for me, sums up the philosophical, emotional heart of the novel. The ‘ocean’ is the alien life-form [if it is indeed alive; it certainly displays behaviour consistent with ‘being alive’ and appears to exhibit some kind of intelligence] that resides upon Solaris. As with His Master’s Voice, Lem is interested in what ‘alien’ actually means. The ocean is absolutely non-human, and is, therefore, not accessible to us, can never be accessible to us, because we can only attempt to understand it by using human concepts, ideas, reasoning etc.
The focus here is not on the ‘personality’ or capabilities of the ocean, but on our own limitations and arrogance. At one point in the book Lem writes that we, the human race, are not actually interested in the genuinely alien, but simply want to extend the boundaries of the human world. In other words, confronted with something that we do not understand, that we can never understand, we want to explain, to interpret it in human terms; in essence, we strive to find all things human. I found all this blistering stuff, and it is something I see around me every day. Not with aliens, of course, but with animals, cars, mountains, and so on. Consider how what most pleases or charms us about our pets are the moments when we can see ourselves in them, when they do something that we see as being recognisably human.
“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.”
For a book that is on the surface concerned with our relationship [or non-relationship] with the alien, Solaris somehow manages to be extraordinarily moving. That is all down to Rheya. I must admit that she broke my heart. There are a number of ways to interpret her role in the novel, just as there is more than one Rheya. First of all, there is the original Rheya, the young woman who Kelvin was married to, who took her own life years before he came to be on a space station on Solaris, and whose death he feels responsible for. Therefore, the counterfeit Rheya, Rheya2, the one who turns up at the space station, could be said to be a physical manifestation of Kelvin’s grief or guilt. In this way, Rheya2 is a kind of tormentor; it is not a blessing for Kelvin to be confronted with a facsimile of the woman he feels as though he failed and treated badly, a woman who looks so much like her but isn’t her. No, it is a form of torture.
It is also possible to interpret Rheya’s appearances in the text outside of any alien context. Throughout my reading I kept returning to that key line, ‘“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” We know that Kelvin and Rheya had a tumultuous relationship on earth, one that ended with an argument and the woman committing suicide. With Rheya2, Kelvin re-enacts this relationship. If you forget that she is non-human for a moment, the interactions between the couple are indistinguishable from the interactions of any couple going through a rough time, a couple that isn’t communicating well, who keep things from each other, who snap at and goad each other out of exasperation, who love and need each other but cannot, despite their best intentions, always show each other the patience and affection that they ought to. In this way, Solaris is a classic marriage-in-crisis narrative; it is a novel about the intense hardships of love.
Finally, and most heartrending of all, there is the issue of personal identity. Rheya2 is, in the beginning, ignorant of what she is; she believes herself to be Rheya, a human woman in love with a human man named Kris Kelvin. She is, therefore, not a malevolent entity, not consciously anyway. As the narrative progresses, she senses that something is wrong; she doesn’t need to eat or sleep, she cannot be physically hurt, she remembers very little of her life before Solaris, and she cannot bear [i.e. it causes her intense physical pain] to be away from Kelvin for longer than a minute or so. Eventually, her true situation, the true nature of her being, dawns on her, and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I had a lump in my throat the size of a football.
[A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of the book]
There is something about this set-up, about a being who believes herself to be human, who feels human, who has a human consciousness, and human emotions, suddenly realising that she has been created by an alien presence, for reasons that are not clear, that really got to me. Her confusion, her anxiety, her struggle, her bravery and nobility [yes, I am aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but I’m in earnest here] in coming to terms with herself all but ruined me. And here’s the rub, who or what exactly is she? Isn’t she Rheya? She is not the same as the original Rheya, that is true, but what does that prove? There is a woman in front of Kelvin, whose heart beats, who breathes, who calls herself Rheya, so who, or what, else can she be? There is a point in the text, when Kelvin says that he no longer sees Rheya and Rheya2 as the same person, that he accepts and loves Rheya2 as herself. The nature of personal identity is thorny; just what is it that makes you, you? Your memories, your appearance, your personality? Rheya2 ticks all these boxes. Solaris makes you ask, is Rheya2 a facsimile or is she a distinct person? Is she a person at all? If not, why not?
I could go into all this in more detail, but I’ll quit while some readers are still with me. Before concluding, I want to quickly deal with the translation. I have read Solaris twice, once, and first, in the most recent [and only] rendering directly from Polish. For this reread, I read the version that is widely available, which is a translation from a French translation from the Polish. I loved the book in both versions. Moreover, despite Lem’s claim that the Polish-French-English translation is inadequate, and taking into consideration my own concerns about authenticity and accurate translations, I thought it was smooth and not at all inferior to the version translated directly from the original. I would have to read both versions simultaneously, or at least close together, to be able to compare them in detail, but I do think, taking into account its negative reputation, that the Polish-French-English version ought to be defended. I criticise translations a lot, and no doubt some people think I am too picky, but I am genuinely happy that the version of Solaris that most people will come across is an excellent read, because, whether you like Sci-Fi or not, you should read Solaris. It is as engaging, thrilling, intelligent and beautiful as any novel you will ever encounter.