Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem book coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Harcourt
Published: 1970
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by Tim Deland

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Solaris occupies a strange place among science fiction novels. Widely considered one of Lem’s masterpieces, alongside Cyberiad and His Master’s Voice, it is both a traditional sci-fi tale and anything but.

The story is told from the point-of-view of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who has been dispatched to a distant space station to aid its research crew in discovering the secrets of Solaris–an ocean planet that seems to defy science’s every effort to categorize or understand it. No sooner does Kelvin arrive though, then he finds himself confronted by a more pressing concern. One of the crew members lies dead in cold storage, and the others have sealed themselves in their rooms, refusing to answer his questions or even meet with him face-to-face.$

As Kelvin struggles to uncover the mystery, he soon learns far more is going on in the station then first expected. Strange phantoms are seen walking the halls–phantoms made of flesh and blood, and seemingly formed from the crew members’ own memories. Among them number Kelvin’s former wife, Rheya, whose suicide he still feels responsible for. Forced to confront these painful memories-made-reality, the crew must ask themselves whether or not Solaris is behind their creation. And, if so, to what purpose?

The above synopsis does not really do Solaris justice, because the novel works on such a wide variety of levels. It is equal parts thriller, horror tale, philosophical tract, satire, and hard sci-fi novel. Lem deftly moves from one genre type to the next, all the while asking deeper questions about his subject matter, such as: What are the limitations of science in understanding the truly alien? What relationship exists between life and our memory? And can we ever begin to unravel the mysteries of the universe without first solving those inside ourselves?

Readers deserve some advance warning though. Solaris is not your usual sci-fi novel. Lem’s work was influenced as much by Eastern European philosophy as it was Western science fiction, a type of literature he had little love for, considering it mostly derivative and poorly written (and it was largely for this attitude his honorary membership to Science Fiction Writers of America was revoked in 1976). Solaris has little of the action or adventure we often associate with sci-fi.

In fact, Lem spends much of the novel’s two-hundred pages describing the various phenomena observed on-planet and the dozens of failed theories scientists have offered in an attempt to explain them. While these sections are not merely self-indulgence on the author’s part–they have a meaning within the larger context–some readers may find them slow going. The novel is as much, if not more, about Solaris the planet as it is about narrator Kris Kelvin.

As for myself, my only real complaint with Solaris lies in its writing. The prose is wordy, the phrasing sometimes awkward, and the dialogue not always convincing. This likely has more to do with the limitations of the translation than Lem’s own style though. The original novel was written in Polish, and the English version is not a direct translation but rather based on the French version. Lem himself has often voiced his own dislike for the English text.

Although Lem has never found much success in the U.S.–probably owing as much to the difficulty of marketing his unique fiction as to his prickly relationship with the American sci-fi community–Solaris remains one of the most original sci-fi novels ever written. Whether you are a sci-fi fan or not though, you owe it to yourself to at least give this book a try. There’s a lot there to enjoy.

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