Stanislaw Lem, the author the book Solaris (you might be more familiar of Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Tarkovsky’s 1971 adaptation of the book) is a figure that has been seen as an outcast for a long time by the US science fiction mainstream. In their day, Philip K. Dick once sent a letter to the FBI on Lem, and told them that Lem was a communist and, hear this, a „composite committee, rather than an individual.“ Of course, at that point Dick was already diagnosed with schizophrenia, so he probably had some kind of committee talking to him as well, so you can’t really blame him.
But the odium against Lem didn’t just come from Dick; it also came from other authors. Probably because he called the lot of them mental weaklings producing cheap pulp fiction. He was hence promptly ousted by the Science Fiction Writers Association of America, for reasons obvious. He was the kind of guy that once called science fiction “a whore” that is working “contrary to its dreams and hopes.” Of course, apart from being a guy that didn’t mind not making friends, he was also a genius writer with one of the most prolific minds of his generation.
One of the reasons Lem kicks ass is because he approaches science fiction first with a love for science foremost, and his wit often leaves you with a sense of bitterness over how strange the human condition is. He was the author of literally dozens of books, but one of my personal favorites and his most known book is Solaris, which he published in 1961.
The starting question of the book is what would humans do if they encountered an extraterrestrial biological life-form so advanced that it would go beyond our comprehension of how organisms function? How would we establish first contact, and would we be actually able to at all?
This scientific debate starts with an astronaut’s arrival to a desolate space station placed in geostationary orbit around an apparently uninhabited planet named Solaris. He sees the station almost abandoned, with only two surviving members, given that one of the crew committed suicide. From one of the survivors he learns that scientists have seen strange, complex behavior on the surface of the planet, which is completely covered with water. One other strange phenomenon is that the planet, revolving around twin suns seemingly corrects its’ orbit every now and again. On the other hand, no tests conducted showed any kind of sentient life on the planet, much less traces of anything like human biochemistry.
And yet, stranger things start happening. When gliding across the planet surface in a hovercraft, the astronauts see this alien ocean move as if it had a mind, at times forming titan-sized forms of children from its’ tissue, and enormous waves that would come without a breath of air. The protagonist, Kelvin, a psychologist, attempts to assert what Solaris might be, and then his former dead lover appears on the space station, as human as he left her after their last fight. He later on realizes that all on board of the ship have a “visitor” very similar to his, formed simply from their own traumatic memories and that the planet creates their fantasies before their eyes. Suddenly, Kelvin’s task of analyzing nonhuman intelligence became a much more difficult task.
The manifestations, both on board the vessel and on planet surface, they conclude, are products of the ocean, but for no known reason. With time they realize that the creatures on the station (called phi-creatures) are not aware of their sudden appearance and they truly believe they are the people they look like. But, given that they are formed from memory, they are unaware of any facts of life outside of the experience of the mind that created them. The only conclusion that the protagonist can make is that the planet most likely uses these apparitions as a tool to analyze humans.
Lem doesn’t let the reader off easy. Contrary to his contemporaries who dealt with questions of science fiction by creating heroes to be revered and offering simple solutions, he faced us with an alien intelligence so vast that we cannot even begin to understand it. Solaris is something simply beyond the boundaries of human cognition, a phenomenon that functions within its’ own system of logic, beyond what humans can perceive, because humans are approaching it from their own set of rules. As Snow, the other astronaut put nicely in the book:
We don’t want to conquer the cosmos; we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos… We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds.
Solaris asks questions about the fundamental place of humans and their existence in the universe. It questions our understanding of the universe, and how difficult it is to actually perceive something that is not filtered through human senses, an objective reality beyond our field of vision. Through an implicit position of the protagonist, it shows us what humans yearn for when they think of aliens – a meeting with a deity which can flood us with knowledge impossible to communicate. What is the biggest impact of the book is that at the end, it does not give you answers, but faces you with the futility of analysis when understanding is impossible.