Book Review: Solaris

Book Name: Solaris
Author: Stanislaw Lem
First Published: 1961

Stanislaw Lem was born on September 12, 1921 in Lwow, Poland. He was Jewish, but he and his parents were able to survive the Nazi occupation during World War II by using falsified documents. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, but later would turn from this faith and declare himself to be agnostic. Lem was quoted as saying, “for moral reasons … the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created … intentionally.” He worked as a science research assistant during his college years and it was during this time that he began writing his stories. Later, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, he worked as a mechanic and welder, becoming active in the resistance. When the Polish territory Kresy became part of Soviet Ukraine, he and his family moved to Krakow. His father, a doctor, wanted him to study medicine at Jagiellonian University and Lem enrolled but he intentionally failed his finals to avoid being forced to become a military physician.

Lem began writing poetry, stories, and essays while working as a research assistant. The Man from Mars, his first science fiction novel, was released as a series in a Ukraine magazine called New World of Adventures. During the Stalin regime, when works had to be approved by the government before publication, he had to include in his books content that put socialism and communism in a good light. When the de-Stalinization period in the Soviet Union started the “Polish October”, Poland celebrated a rise in political free speech. Free of the shackles of having to bow to the promotion of communism in his writing by the Soviets, Lem wrote 17 books from 1956 to 1968. It was during this time that he met and married Barbara Leśniak, a radiologist, in 1953. Their son, Tomasz, was born in 1968.

One of the novels during this busy writing period was his highly popular novel Solaris. In the book, Lem presents the recurring theme of how futile it is for humans to understand things that are extremely alien. Solaris has had three screen adaptations: a two-part Russian TV film in 1968, a full-length Russian film in 1972, and a 2002 Hollywood film.

In 1973, despite being ineligible due to his non-american status, The SFWA awarded Stanislaw Lem an honorary membership. Lem accepted the membership at that time, but thought of American science fiction as ill thought-out and poorly written, being created to make money instead of the formation of ideas or new literary forms. After Lem’s work was published in America, and he became eligible for a regular membership, his honorary one was rescinded. It was thought that this was intended to be a rebuke toward Lem and his contempt for American science fiction writers, certainly Lem seemed to think that it was. Many SFWA members protested Lem’s treatment, including Ursula K. Le Guin, but Lem declined the regular membership, even though the membership fees were offered to be paid by a fellow member.

Starting the 1980s, he focused more on philosophical essays and over the years became critical of science fiction and pessimistic about modern technology. He also had a falling out with his previous agent Franz Rottensteiner, who contributed in introducing him to Western readers. In 1996, Lem was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest decoration of merit for civilians and military personnel.

Lem died on March 27, 2006 of heart disease. The urn containing his ashes was laid at Salwatorski Cemetery. Although he declared himself an agnostic, Lem’s funeral was conducted in accordance with Roman Catholic rites at his family’s request.

Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed. – Stanislaw Lem

The planet Solaris is covered by a vast ocean that is possibly a giant, sentient organism. Scientists, referred to as Solarists, have been studying the planet and its ocean for decades. They have been recording and elaborately classifying the complex phenomena that happen on the ocean’s surface but they do not really understand what those activities mean. The psychologist Kris Kelvin travels from Earth to the Solaris Station, a research station hovering near the planet’s surface, and meets Snow and Sartorius, two of the scientists there. He finds the station in chaos and the scientists near madness. Another scientist, Kelvin’s acquaintance named Gibarian, has killed himself just hours before.

The crew has aggressively bombarded the ocean with high-energy X-ray as part of an unauthorized experiment shortly before Kelvin’s arrival. The ocean has responded by creating exact copies of people from the scientists’ most painful memories. These mysterious human-like beings with superhuman abilities are in the ship and are psychologically tormenting the researchers. The visitors and the real humans differ from each other sub-atomically – the visitors’ bodies are made of stabilized neutrinos that give the visitors great strength and regeneration capabilities.

The visitors of Snow and Sartorius are anonymous but Kelvin encounters Gibarian’s visitor, a “giant Negress”. Kelvin also meets his own visitor: a duplicate of Rheya, his lover who has injected herself with poison when he left her. Rheya does not know that she is just a copy. Kelvin feels conflicting emotions upon seeing her but decides to lure her into a shuttle then eject her into space to get rid of her. A second Rheya appears with no memory of the shuttle and this time, Kelvin decides to stay with her because he is still in love with the original Rheya. The second duplicate, however, hears a recording made by Gibarian and learns that she is just a copy and is not really human. She drinks liquid oxygen to end her life but her body heals itself. The other Solarists work to discover a way to destroy the visitors but Kelvin decides that he will protect Rheya no matter what happens. Later, the researchers decide to record Kelvin’s electrical brain impulses and beam them into the ocean. Nothing happens at first, then Kelvin begins having weird dreams. Several weeks later, a strange ocean storm occurs and Snow sees a possible way for humans to communicate with the giant alien organism.

Solaris-bookcoverMy interest in the author began when I saw the 2002 movie Solaris, staring George Clooney. It intrigued me and I went on to read the novel and look at other works by Stanislaw Lem. He has a literary style to his writing that conveys deeper ideas than many science fiction novels do today. If you haven’t checked out work by this classic science fiction author before, Solaris would be a good one to sample first.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Solaris”

  1. Personally, I found Tarkovsky’s movie version far superior to the later American version. Still, it is good that Solaris was brought to a larger Western audience; Lem has long been under-appreciated.

    1. I agree that he has been somewhat unnoticed here in America, which is a shame. He is a fine writer. I have not seen Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris, only the American one. I will have to check it out.

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