[posted 12.10.2002]


The second volume of Hughes and Eugel, which I was still leafing through mechanically, began with a systematization that was as ingenious as it was amusing. The table of classification comprised three definitions: Type: Polythera; Class: Syncytialia; Category: Metamorph.

It might have been thought that we knew of an infinite number of examples of the species, whereas in reality there was only one — weighing, it is true, some seven hundred billion tons. --- Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

YOU MAY OR MAY NOT have already seen Solaris, the new Steven Soderbergh movie starring George Clooney. Perhaps you’ve already seen the 1972 Tarkovsky film of the same name. Maybe you’ve read the book that is the source material for both these movies. I’ve listed these possibilities in order of their likelihood, which is unfortunate, because the novel Solaris is one of the finest written in the 20th century. The book itself is by far the most widely read and acclaimed of its Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, but, unless you’re a hard-core Science Fiction fan or a university professor, you probably haven’t heard of him.

Classifications of Lem as an author are difficult and extremely delicate because his fiction genre-hops from book to book, story to story — and frequently within the same work. He is a polymath as much at home with theoretical physics as the Western canon, and it is hard to shake the impression that his books are smarter than you are.

The topics, genres and issues Lem takes to task in his fiction vary wildly. He’s written fables about math, memoirs about possible contact with alien civilizations, murder mysteries, fictional lectures, reviews, introductions and even historical novels. He is not a Science Fiction author, though he borrows many tropes from that genre in his work. In his many published nonfiction essays, he has often brutally attacked Science Fiction as a genre for its intellectual dishonesty and artistic barrenness. He is often a satirist, creating punning, alliterative neologisms that must have caused his translators many sleepless nights. No matter what setting, theme or tone he chooses, however, Lem is always merciless in his critique of modern attitudes toward technology and science.

He emerges through his fictional work as the greatest heretic of science who has studied with great care the lessons of its history. His works as a whole are epistemological conflicts, where a set of ideas is confronted with a circumstance that it cannot and yet is still compelled to explain. The history of science is this very story, and Lem’s fiction consists of thought experiments illustrating that our knowledge, which has already gone through so many fundamental changes (over the last century especially), can still founder on the shores of new discoveries. Worse still, his works show that we can encounter — or may already have encountered — situations where the stumbling block of our understanding is our very quality of being human. Our history, our culture, our physiology may forever stand in the way of understanding various aspects of our universe.

Lem borrows the spirit and thread of scientific discourse in his fiction. His characters spend many pages debating with each other and themselves as to the interpretation of the events they have encountered. The fact that his books spend so much time analyzing themselves has made critical interpretation of them difficult. It seems to me that this is where many of Lem’s 20th century interpreters went awry: They would mistake a character voicing an interpretation of an event, phenomenon, trend, field, etc. as Lem the author definitively offering a personally held one. Yet this is, above all else, a method that Lem employs to flesh out his characters. In many cases, Lem’s chief device for character development has been the diatribe, where characters elaborate philosophical systems that illustrate their own capability of insight as well as the blindnesses they possess. Characters come into conflict with one another on precisely these grounds — that is to say, on the ground of philosophy — as they struggle to make sense of the crises they find themselves in.

Solaris is the very best of Lem’s adventure novels, and among his most brilliant and genuinely terrifying thought experiments. Though the novel is in many ways a very intimate portrait of its main character, Kris Kelvin, it is the story of man encountering an alien intelligence. True to form, Lem’s alien is no malnourished, elephantitic humanoid, but a giant ocean that covers almost the entire surface of a planet. Furthermore, mankind did not discover it because it was either signaling its presence to us or because it located signals we were emitting. It was discovered solely because astronomers noticed a planet keeping a regular orbit around two stars. This premise is referential to a physical problem that has remained unsolved since Newton’s time, the so-called “Three Body Problem.” Briefly stated, it is the inability to predict the orbit of three commensurate bodies around one another. Such systems are chaotic in the mathematical sense of the term — the best we’ve been able to do is simply define what they would be likely and unlikely to do. In Lem’s novel, physicists of the future have had no better luck in unraveling this problem, so they dashed off to the planet in order to study it as a physical phenomenon.

Upon arrival at the planet, dubbed Solaris, the pioneers found that a massive ocean covered almost the entire planet. They came to realize that the ocean was some manner of colossal biological entity that controlled its orbit around its twin suns. It exhibited bizarre, often terrifying behavior around the human explorers, generating giant structures on the scale of cities out of itself in a manner of minutes only to swallow them up again. Despite exhibiting a dazzling array of generative talents around its human visitors, it was impossible to tell whether the creature took any actual notice of them at all. Fatalities did occur during the various expeditions around the planet and on the structures, but these were due to accidents that explorers were unable to prevent.

The novel begins more than a century into the study of the planet. For 150 years, a space station has orbited Solaris while researchers sought some understanding of its nature, its existence and its awareness of its guests. Now, however, the project has fallen into decay. The station is in total disarray, the skeleton crew of researchers on the brink of madness. It seems that those living on the station have been plagued by visitors of their own. Each researcher finds himself perpetually followed around by a figure from his past. Kelvin, after only a very short while on the station, finds himself confronted with the corporeal manifestation of his dead wife, Rheya, who took her life after he walked out on her. It seems that the ocean is somehow responsible for their existence, but what they are, what they want and where they come from are completely mysterious. They cannot be physically harmed and go to any length to continue to remain in their ‘owner’s’ vicinity. Apart from these qualities, they seem totally human, and Kelvin cannot prevent himself from falling in love with his visitor — a love that is a mixture of guilt, longing and his desire to accept the utter impossibility that she could return to him.

The novel has two primary threads that weave in and around one another. The first consists of the scientific and historic theories, events and debates about the ocean. These aspects of the book are highly academic, moving slowly and methodically, exhibiting the careful logic of a mathematical proof. The thoroughness of these passages is often staggering. Lem describes the various phases and influence of Solarist theories with the same meticulous imagination as the physical phenomena of the planet itself. Reading this novel is often very much like reading a chapter out of a history of science book of the future.

Perhaps the chapter that encapsulates this best is one where the narrator, Kelvin, is researching the planet in the station’s library. The library contains vast tomes cataloguing the planet’s known regular behaviors, naming conventions of these and theories of experts, each one refuting the other. The final impression one gets from the library is that nothing of any substance is actually known about the ocean, and only because of man’s irreducible compunction to analogize. Every idea, every name and every issue concerning the planet is described by the texts Kelvin is reading through analogous phenomena on Earth. Lem follows these descriptions with Kelvin’s own critiques of such ideas, all of which fail on precisely those grounds. Humans’ explanations come from their culture, history and physiology. Scientific explanations fail as swiftly as any other with Solaris, because of the assigned tasks various forms of knowledge serve in human life. Science is prohibited from attributing intention to phenomena, yet it is impossible to remove this aspect from the mystery of the visitors, the formations of the ocean or the question of whether the ocean is aware of man’s presence. Religion must conceive of God as omniscient, yet in climbing the ladder of intelligence, man’s explanations of his world take on an alien countenance as their idiosyncratic form and content occlude further understanding. As questions of giant intelligences and consistent explanations collide in the ocean of Solaris, Kelvin despairs at the state of man’s relationship to his own knowledge:

Solaristics is a revival of long-vanished myths, the expression of mystical nostalgias which men are unwilling to confess openly. The cornerstone is deeply entrenched in the foundations of the edifice: it is the hope of Redemption.

Solarists are incapable of recognizing this truth, and consequently take care to avoid any interpretation of Contact, which is presented in their writings as an ultimate goal, whereas originally it had been considered as a beginning, and as a step onto a new path, among many other possible paths. Over the years, Contact has become sanctified.

The novel’s second thread is a highly personal and intimate narration of the life of Kelvin with his facsimilated wife, Rheya. The prose throughout the novel is vibrant, rich and tantalizing, drenched by the twin suns that Solaris orbits, but even more so in the passages about the couple. It seems an almost impossible task to convincingly portray the feelings that a person might experience confronted with a dead love made flesh once again, but Lem infuses his text with such guilt, dread, pain, tenderness and intimacy that the illusion never falters. These two threads — the scientific and the personal — are not in any way forthcoming; there is no division in the text itself. The two coexist in the same passages and one is absolutely necessary for the other. The planet’s baffling behavior and mystifying physics can only be properly mirrored in the mazelike anguish of the messiest of human relationships. Kelvin himself summarizes this entanglement: “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored the labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, without finding what lies behind doorways he himself has sealed.”

Solaris is a novel that defies classification as much as the ocean flouts understanding. To a large extent, it is a morality play, a cautionary tale that lays bare the hubris in human knowledge. But to read it only this way misses the lush, dark, nuanced tale of a man offered a second, though problematic chance at love. Lem sends his character on a journey into himself, a journey that has an ever-present background noise of terrible dread where the dirty, creaking hallways of the space station he inhabits reflect the same disarray of his own psyche, made plain by the searing light of Solaris’ twin suns. I often empathize with Kelvin’s efforts in the library, as I try to come to some consistent understanding of the novel, tempted by an elusive promise of comprehension, and seeing all my attempts refuted by the sheer difference of this work. The scope of the novel is easy to miss for its brevity, the human tragedy unfolding for its dense academic theorizing, the moral lesson for its terrifying tone, the gorgeous prose for its quest for answers. The grand sweep of the most abstracted perspective offers as many possibilities as pouring over the smallest detail. Perhaps the key difference between myself and Kelvin, though, is that for me it is a rare pleasure to survey the landscape of Solaris.

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carl albrecht-buehler is an artist in chicago. he really likes dinosaurs. and books by lem, of course.