First published in 1961, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris has for decades been touted as one of the best sci-fi classics for deep thinkers. It holds true because Stanislaw Lem is probably the best-known science fiction and most widely translated author outside of the English language. The Medal for Merit to Culture Polish writer is perhaps famous for Solaris and subsequent adaptations, as well as Inquest of Pilot Pirx, and The Congress.
Solaris has been adapted twice for the big screen: first in 1972, which was co-written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and starring Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk; and again in 2002, which was produced by Jon Landau and James Cameron, directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring George Clooney, Viola Davis, Natasha McElhone, and Jeremy Davis.
Part of the reason Solaris resonates well with sci-fi readers is that, in many aspects, it is the antithesis of a fantasy universe in which every extraterrestrial creature we come across speaks English, walks on two legs just like humans, and offers the human crew a treat. In other words, it’s the anti-Star Trek novel, which calls to debate the notion that we cannot have political, philosophical, or religious conversations without our own. Stanislaw builds an entire galaxy where humans can converse with aliens at a philosophical level, which is a fresh breath of air.
Even so, the premise and setting of the novel is pretty much the standard cliché. Solaris, as described by Stanislaw, is a faraway planet that orbits two suns, a blue sun, and a red sun. The planet’s surface is covered entirely by one, endless ocean mass, which we later come to learn is a living organism in and of itself.
The story follows the adventures of psychologist Kris Kelvan, who goes around space, orbiting Solaris in a bid to study and learn more about the living and possibly sentient ocean. He’s not the first to do so; scientists have over the decades done some research on the ocean without yielding any tangible results. Some have, without authorization, beamed radioactive rays to the water body, an experiment that eventually impacts them negatively in a psychological way.
The observation and studies of the Solaris force the researchers to continually re-examine their positions and assumptions that inform their knowledge and understanding of the galaxy itself. This is one strange planet that continually defies not only scientific analysis but also understanding.
When the psychologist landed on the Solaris station, he confronted a mess with his fellow scientists Sartorius and Snow on the verge of going off the rail. Gibarian, the 3rd scientist and longtime friend of Kris, has just killed himself on the haunted station. There is also a black woman walking aimlessly and confused around the station naked.
The monster in this science fiction masterpiece is a startling phenomenon, in which life-forms erupt from the ocean covering Solaris. When closely evaluated, scientists discover that the eruptions represent complex mathematical equations in spatial terms. They do follow these patterns when their architectural structure flowers and, in fact, these productions go against well-understood laws of aerodynamics and physics.
It soon dawns on Dr. Kris Kelvin that the sentient sea can in fact subjugate the human mind and turn the subject’s memories into breathing and living memories, hence the maddening properties. And, it also doesn’t take long before Kris crosses paths with the woman he once was in love with. What follows is a spine-chilling adventure that reads like one of the best post-apocalyptic novels.
Readers will enjoy the philosophical storytelling and plot in this beautifully written novel. The central theme that seems to shine through the book is the question of what one would do if they were confronted by the ghost past? Like most sci-fi books, Stanislaw’s Solaris puts great emphasis on the discovery of what lies beyond our own and what that discovery means for the human race.
At slightly over 200 pages, Solaris is a pretty swift-paced read; even though the plot is packed with hard science. The celebrated writer poses more questions than answers, which makes the novel more engaging. This may not be to some readers’ liking, though. At the end of it, the reader is left to ponder the psychological and metaphysical meanings of love, death, and life that help shape us as we progress through life.