January 03, 2006
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything ... Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. ... We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange ... We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need for other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past.
"Solaris" seems to be a harsh meditation on the notion of first contact. In the various movie adaptations of this novel, the notion of humanism in this story is often hailed. `Science-fiction with a heart' the maudlin reviewers often cry out. It is this anthropomorphic viewpoint that Stanislaw Lem assails most directly in this novel. Many works of science-fiction often assume as given that humans have unlimited potential, and that given a chance we will be able to understand everything in the universe. Thinking otherwise is often treated as an affront to the often unstated assumption of humanity's limitless potential. "Solaris" offers a rarely presented point of view: even if the scientific viewpoint is accurate, it might not be enough. We might be too hard wired to a particular view to comprehend certain truths. It may be that we are selfish in a way that is so central to our makeup that science might have boundaries that we cannot truly accept as true.
This novel starts with Kris Kelvin getting a chance to visit the planet Solaris. Earth scientists have been studying this planet for over a 100 years, and even though there is clear evidence that the ocean on this planet is what we would term as sentient (in some unspecified manner), nobody has managed to come close to a theory of how humans can interact with this consciousness. Kris is also sent to the orbiting station to decide whether humanity should finally give up on contacting Solaris and shut down the station. He arrives to find his friend Gibarian dead, and the remainder of the crew Snouth and Sartorius to be at the limits of their sanity. They each seem to be undergoing a mysterious challenge that they can barely withstand.
After one night on the station, Kris is challenged in similar manner when he awakes next to his wife, Rheya. Kris immediately proceeds to kill her in a gruesome manner, unable to believe that anything but horror could be associated with the reanimation of his wife who took her own life several years ago. When Rheya reappears, Kris can contemplate his situation further and his decisions and those of the false-Rheya are what form the key to the novel. First contact, indeed.
The ending of the novel is vague but at least does not commit the abominations that are perpetrated in the final scenes of the Tarkovsky film based on this novel, as well as the later Soderbergh remake.
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.
On the face of it, this novel looks like another sterile suggestion about the limitations of science (we cannot explain consciousness, etc.) but it is substantially different: it is about the limitations of humanity and not of science. A hopeful rebuttal within science-fiction comes from ideas like Vernor Vinge's Singularity.
%T Solaris %A Stanislaw Lem %I Harvest Book: Harcourt, Brace and Company %P 204 %D 1970 (original in Polish 1961) %G ISBN: 0156837501 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2002/12/07Posted by anoop at January 3, 2006 02:52 PM