Friday, 24 September 2010

Review: Solaris

We think of the world as an ordered place that operates according to immutable laws. By studying the world, we believe that we can discover these laws and through them understand exactly how the world works, its history, and its future. This is based, in part, on the assumption that our reason maps onto the order of the universe. We assume that our logic, our mathematics, or models, our categories, and all the other things that we use to make sense of what we observe is reflected in objective reality. If it doesn't, then it merely means that we've made an error that will eventually be corrected.

That is one of the reasons we believe that if we ever encounter an extraterrestrial civilisation we'll be able to communicate it because our reason and theirs must meet in objective reality.

But what would happen if man encountered something totally alien; something with which we share no common ground and appears to violate the laws of nature as a matter of course? That's the question posed by Stanislaw Lem's 1961 science fiction novel Solaris.

Solaris is the name of both a planet circling a pair of binary stars in the constellation of Aquarius and the planet's sole inhabitant. The confusion is understandable because the inhabitant is a living ocean that covers most of the planet's surface. For about a century, Earthmen have been studying Solaris and in all that time have learned almost nothing definite about it. It violates every law of physics, chemistry, and logic. It doesn't even possess an atomic structure and is composed of some new form of matter that is alien right down to the subatomic level. Solaris is definitely alive, but whether it is intelligent or not is unknown because after decades of intense effort all attempts to communicate with the creature have failed completely.

The base of operations for the study of Solaris is a station that floats via anti-gravity above the ever-changing surface of Solaris. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, arrives on the station and discovers that the place is a shambles; that one of the three crewmen has committed suicide and the other two have locked themselves in their quarters and refuse to come out. Kelvin finds that after an attempt to provoke a reaction in Solaris by blasting it with radiation the living ocean has responded by sending "visitors" to the station that are driving the crew insane. The crew refuse to explain what is going on, but Kelvin soon learns for himself when his wife Rhyea, who killed herself ten years ago, appears out of nowhere. However, this Rhyea never eats, can smash her way through steel doors, come back to life after drinking liquid oxygen, and when she's accidentally blown off the station in a shuttle capsule to certain death she returns in a few hours as if nothing had happened.

Is this an attack? An attempt to communicate? Or are Kelvin and the others just going mad?

Adapted for the screen in the USSR in 1972 and again by Hollywood in 2002, Solaris is best known today by art house crowds who flocked to the "Soviet 2001" and stayed away in droves from the remake. If you've seen either of these, however, you've not seen Solaris because Lem despised both versions as missing the point of the book. Both film versions concentrated on the tragic love story of Kelvin and Rhyea and expanded it until Solaris itself is relegated to an easily forgotten off-screen presence.

However, in the novel the romance is merely a subplot to humanise the much more important story of mankind's increasing frustration with trying to understand and contact this hopelessly alien creature. For Lem, Solaris is a story of ideas and atmosphere revolving about this unsolvable enigma that throws down the gauntlet to modern, secular man's greatest conceit; that his science can know all. The Earthmen are faced with an impossible crisis: Try to contact an alien intelligence (if it is intelligent) with which they can have no common ground or accept defeat by admitting that the universe is a chaotic place beyond human understanding, our science is merely a child's comforting delusion, and that the only god possible is a frustrated, unfinished one.

Much of Solaris has a powerful poetic feel to it as Lem describes in detail the bizarre phenomena exhibited by the creature as it creates weird abstract shapes the size of mountains one moment and then what look like giant plaster gardens complete with tools the next. He counterpoises these often beautiful descriptive passages with long discourses on the various theories and attempts by scientists to explain what is happening and failing utterly. Though effective, sometimes these passages go on a bit too far, which is very easy when the author himself admits that what he's relating is the inexplicable and the pointless. However, unlike the films, the novel moves along at a brisk pace and has none of the indulgences of the cinematic incarnations, such as a drive into the city that takes what seems like a week or trying to turn a science fiction story into a cut-rate M. Night Shyamalan shaggy dog story.

Neither Campellian adventure story nor pretentious new wave rubbish, Solaris demonstrates how intelligent, adult science fiction can be written and why Stanislaw Lem counts as among the best of the Eastern European Sci Fi writers of the Cold War era.

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