Friday, October 26, 2018

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

by Stanislaw Lem

Stanislaw Lem was born in Lwow, Poland in 1921, to illustrate how much change he would have seen in his life, the city of his birth is now Lvov, Ukraine. It was annexed into the USSR in 1939 in the aftermath of the Soviet-Nazi invasion of Poland and became part of the Ukraine in 1991 upon the breakup of the USSR. Lem would not be outdone by his birth city. The son of a doctor and a housewife, Lem was raised Roman Catholic but would attend Jewish religious studies in school and converted to atheism later in life. He was refused entry into Lwow Polytechnic due to his “bourgeois origin” as was standard for the USSR in the early years to refuse higher education or government employment to people from the wrong class. However his father maintained connections and got him into Lwow University to study medicine in 1940. This was interrupted when the Nazi's broke the treaty with the Soviets and invaded the Soviet Union. His father was prepared with forged papers to cover up the families Jewish ancestry so they were able to avoid the ghettos and the camps. Under Nazi occupation he worked as a car mechanic and a welder, stealing German munitions to pass to the Polish resistance when the opportunity presented itself. After the Soviets threw back the Nazi war machine, the Polish citizens of Lwow were resettled (whether they liked it or not) in Krakow. Once there, he attended Jagiellonian University, he completed his studies but refused to take the final exams and graduate to avoid the compulsory military service required of medical graduates. He did find work in a maternity ward where he learned something very important, he utterly hated the sight of blood. That led him to quit medicine.

Throughout the 1950s he would write, although many of his books didn't make it past the Soviet censors. It's only after the Polish October and the resulting Destalinization that he would really be able to explore the themes and ideas that he wanted to (Thanks Kruschev!). Even then he chose to work in science fiction, because the censorship was lightest in that area. He published Solaris in 1961 and it would become his most famous novel. To date it has been adapted to Opera four different times, turned into play twice and been made into film three times; the most recent being the 2002 version with George Clooney. You can also see its influence in a large number of science fiction and horror works, for example the Silent Hill 2 plot has many of the same elements and themes running through it. It has been translated into dozens of languages but unfortunately the English translation is considered one of the worst, perhaps due to the reality of the Cold War. The English translation isn't a Polish-English translation, it's a translation of the French translation of the book which according to Lem leads to a number of subtle distortions and some ideas not quite getting through the way he would like. One of the not so subtle changes is two characters flat out having their names changed, the engineer Snaut becomes Snow and the main characters girlfriend goes from Harey to Rheya. Since most of my readers are English speakers I'll be using the English names to avoid confusion, even if I can't find a single reason for the names being changed. Legal issues however prevent the publishing of a better translation, which is currently published by mariner books, owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt company. Let's actually get to the book shall we? Quick note, there may be some spoilers here but come on the book is older then you are (well... Most of you).

Solaris takes place in the far retro-future, humanity has spread across the galaxy seeking new worlds and strange new civilizations. While it seems they have not yet made contact with an alien intelligence, they have found marvels and mysteries as they reach across the stars. One of those is the the planet Solaris. A planet orbiting twin stars, it immediately grabbed Earth's attention by having an orbit that defies our understanding of gravity and orbital mechanics, always maintaining a stable, uniform orbit (It isn’t impossible for this to occur if I recall correctly. There are a lot of exoplanets in binary systems, but the perturbation dynamics get complicated and a lot depends on your definition of a stable orbit). When the first manned mission arrived they found another impossibility, the planet save for a few barren rocky isles is covered in some sort of semi-liquid gel. An entire ocean of the stuff. An ocean that seems to respond to outside stimuli and create structures randomly. This creates a scientific firestorm of debate and argument and the creation of an entire scientific discipline centered around the study of the planet and it's ocean sized inhabitant, although no one can agree if the damn thing is even alive or what it's made of let alone if it's sapient or if we can communicate with it. Still, generations have tried and as the fervor died down in the face of no results, the science remains and a few men still doggedly continue studying and probing in an effort to figure something - anything - out about the planet. A permanent station was built to hover in the upper reaches of Solaris atmosphere but over the decades the crew has dwindled in number and resources as a result of flagging interest back on Earth.

Our main character Dr. Kris Kelvin is a psychologist who arrives on Solaris station following a call from his mentor from university (You know, if J├╝rgen put such a call out for me, I’d go). For Dr. Kelvin this is the result of years and years of work and sacrifices, some more intense than others. However when he arrives, he finds an outpost in shambles and the last two scientists working on the station reduced to paranoid and deeply anti-social men, one of whom refuses to venture out of his lab or allow anyone into it. The other one, Dr. Snow is a rambling wreck of a man who is barely coherent. It is here that he learns the man he came to see, Dr. Gibarian committed suicide, injecting himself with a poison and spending his last moments hiding in a locker in his quarters. The only warning that Dr. Kelvin gets about the strangeness of his situation is when Snow warns him that if he sees anyone besides himself or Dr. Sartorius he should not react or interact with the person he sees (Oh no. Ooooh Noooo). Things start to go surreal on us when Dr. Kelvin is approaching Gabarian's quarters and finds himself being passed by a half naked black woman who promptly disappears. Disturbed by this and his investigations turning up nothing - as he's a psychologist not a criminal forensic scientist after all - he barricades himself in his quarters and gets a very fitful night of sleep. Which is going to turn out to be his easiest night on the station because when he wakes up, sitting right next to him is Rheya, his girlfriend...Who’s been dead for years, because she killed herself when he left her (Woah there! Talk about mentally unbalanced ex girlfriends, holy crap!).

Dr. Kelvin then finds that each member of the station also has a “visitor” as they call them and although they don't seem hostile, they do insist on having “their” scientist in view and within earshot at all times. If their scientist retreats out of view, they flip out and proceed to utterly destroy any obstacle between them and the scientist in question. Whether it be doors, walls... You get the idea. They are made up of subatomic particles they call neutrinos too small for earth microscopes to see, as they can only see to the level of atoms (I’m just gonna leave this alone…). Frankly there's only one place that the visitors could come from but why? What caused Solaris to send phantoms pulled from the heads of it's researchers? Why is it sending these phantoms? What are the scientists and Dr. Kelvin suppose to do about it?

It doesn't help that Rheya herself is completely unaware of the motives and processes behind her apparent resurrection and her appearance is enough to throw Dr. Kelvin out of balance as he starts to slowly wrestle with his guilt and remorse over the original Rheya's death. This makes his investigations haphazard and somewhat sloppy, although to be fair he is operating far outside of his field. He's a psychologist not a physicist or biologist so his knowledge regarding how to investigate such a thing is going to be limited. Meanwhile Rheya starts to have her own suspicions that she might not be who she thinks she is. Dr Kelvin's reaction is one of utter dread; he worries what she might do with that realization and the possibility of losing her all over again. The struggles and worries of our other two scientists are only vaguely illustrated and their own visitors are never shown. On one hand it works amazingly well as a metaphor for how we never really know or understand the demons and struggles of others around us. Snow and Sartorius own manic efforts to hide their visitors from each other and Kelvin and their utter and complete refusal to even discuss it certainly could be used to illustrate how we often draw a veil over our mental scars and emotional troubles. Especially in the time when the book was written when it was common to completely refuse to discuss mental illness in any meaningful fashion; except behind closed doors and closer company. Dr. Kelvin is the odd man out in refusing to hide Rheya, instead he’s willing to fight tooth and nail to keep her with him even in the face of the discomfort and disapproval of his fellows. I could even argue for Solaris being a stand in for our own unconscious mind; vast, unknowable in many ways and always moving, creating and destroying without any real recognizable rhyme or reason (Then why are you pointedly not arguing that?) It smacks of Death of the Author however for me to take that stance and frankly without Lem giving any statement that I could find to support that... I am very loath to project the thoughts and feelings of a 21st century American on the writing and creativity of mid 20th century Pole. I’m arrogant enough to review the book but not arrogant enough to claim I understand it better then the author is what I guess it comes down to. As for what Death of the Author is and my ambivalence towards it, I'll be discussing that in a sidebar so stay tuned.

The bulk of the book, which is a slim 200 pages, is taken up by Dr. Kelvin's turmoil and his own exploration of the science of Solaris and the debates between different schools of thought and theories of what Solaris actually is and what to do about it. Lem honestly seems more interested in using the book to show how he thinks scientific thought and theory work out in a social setting with academic conflict then addressing the various questions he raises in his story. This is a bit hampered by the fact that he is showing us the finest retro future he can. For example his station's library is a mountain of books (heavy books, that would have to be shipped out of a gravity well) while any person born after 1980 would expect the library to be digital. This shouldn't be held against the book and doesn't affect its grade, as asking Lem to accurately predict the future from 1961 is unfair. The President of IBM famously failed to foresee the miniaturization of computer technology for example and one would expect him to have some knowledge on the topic. That said the text makes it very clear that not answering the questions is part of Lem's point. I can understand his desire to write a story where he makes the argument that not all things can be known and that contact with an alien mind may in fact be utterly impossible. He does this masterfully as well, the book is so well written that I can see the craft and skill even through a second-hand translation. I am however utterly frustrated by the lack of catharsis in the book (Come on, the author is from Eastern Europe. What do you expect?), things build up and build up only to slide away without a final confrontation with the mystery or even a real grapple with it. We are left like the main character on the shore of a vast alien ocean, staring out over it with no real solution in sight or even a better understanding then we started with. Lem instead builds up the mystery and then turns away from it to focus on other things. Which leaves me a bit frustrated. I have to be honest and say I struggled with the grade for this book for days after finishing it. Solaris could also be called “Questions Without Answers” or perhaps “Expectations Without Hope”. That said, Solaris is going to stay with me for a quite a while and the questions it raises aren't ones that can be easily answered and they are presented with a fair amount of skill. I find myself thinking this is a book that should be read, but I can't promise you'll enjoy it. Solaris gets an A- from me. It's earned its place in science fiction but I can't say that I like book.

Join me Saturday for a sidebar on Death of the Author and Sunday we'll be looking at the 1972 film of Solaris. Keep Reading.

Red is of course your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black is your reviewer Garvin Anders

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