Depending on the viewpoint, the term ‘science fiction’ means different things to different people. To Margaret Atwood, the term implies “monsters and spaceships”, while Isaac Asimov defines the genre as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings”. From derivative space adventure to the most thought provoking of commentaries on the future human condition, the fact remains that the genre is used as a medium to look at things in a perspective possible only through an imagined mindset. Nothing less could be said of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 Solaris.
A purist of sorts, Lem washed his hands of involvement in American sci-fi during the 70s believing that the focus was more on entertainment than human interest. He chose to walk his own path in the genre, focusing on the philosophy of mind in relation to futuristic situations, instead. Throughout the majority of his novels, the theme of confronting the unknown, and by analogy, the sub-conscious, continually reveals itself. A bold statement regarding psychology, Solaris—perhaps Lem’s masterwork—is no exception.
Solaris is the story of the researcher Kris Kelvin and the unreal trip he makes to the planet Solaris. Sent to further mankind’s efforts penetrating the otherwise indecipherable geology and oceanography of the planet, he soon finds mystery existing inside the research station—his very bedroom, in fact. Life becoming more surreal with each day that passes in the relative isolation of the station, Kelvin soon finds himself confronting questions about the nature of the planet in terms he never dreamed: is the planet and its massive ocean alive?
Not wholly a mind-trip, Lem effectively balances internal monologue with events and happenings in- and outside the research station. The ocean taking on kaleidoscope shapes and forms, he goes into strangely beautiful descriptions of the variety of visages that seem to randomly appear and recede from the water’s depths. Likewise, the beauties and stresses of life on the strange planet affect the other researchers at the station in a variety of fashions. Some handling the version of life there with aplomb, others crack like an egg, their psychotic explosions and sublime trickery making the plot all the more interesting, the conclusion far more than Kelvin expected.
In the end, Solaris is among the top science fiction books ever written if cerebral qualities, not “monsters and spaceships” are your expectation. Though a philosophically quiet tone permeates the story, the imagery and storytelling remain vivid. The haunting, unexplainable situations Kelvin finds himself in on the strange planet will hang in the reader’s mind for ages. The novel also an art piece, the metaphors are grand, expanding the reader’s understanding of Lem’s ideas in the process. Fans of Ursula Le Guin will definitely want to check out Solaris (she was one Lem’s few American supporters in the 70s), as will fans of Rendezvous with Rama despite Clarke’s polar view of humanity’s hopes for the future and technology.