A classic work of nearly-non-Western Science Fiction

A classic work of nearly-non-Western Science Fiction January 19, 2018

I like to think that the author of Solaris would agree with me that the main character was completely wrong at the end of the book. If this is not the case, then an otherwise excellent classic of science fiction has a fairly weak ending.

Older readers of this blog will likely have heard of Solaris through the George Clooney adaptation or the earlier Soviet version, neither of which I’ve seen and so cannot comment on. The book by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, however, I can say is excellent.  (And it’s because the author was writing in Poland during Communist rule that ‘nearly non-Western’ is in the title of this review: clearly Poland is a nation between two worlds.)

There are two main threads running through this book. The first is the mystery of the planet Solaris. This world is an astronomical mystery, in that it is perfectly balanced between a binary star system yet maintains an environment and atmosphere suitable for life (without being torn apart by gravitational forces). Human scientists can only concluded that some form of intelligence is at work with regard to this planet–yet, where is it and how do we make contact with it? Adding to the mystery of the mere existence of this planet is the surface of the planet itself. Covered by an ocean, the liquid surface of this world throws up immense patterns of varying complexity, beauty, rationality, and occasionally even tragedy or (apparently) evil. These creations exist for varying lengths of time only to collapse or be destroyed in ways that are at the same time regular and diverse. As one example:

“The ‘extensor’ appears to be an independent creation, stretching for miles between membranous walls swollen with ‘ossified growths,’ like some colossal python which after swallowing a mountain is sluggishly digesting the meal, while a slow shudder occasionally ripples along its creeping body.” (Lem, 112)

And the central mystery of the story:  what should the human scientists on the planet make of the people from their past who suddenly appear on the science station and do not seem to know that they’re anything other than fully human?

In other words, his book has all the makings of a great work of science fiction.

Image result for solaris lem
Source: Wikipedia

Yet the ocean planet Solaris is not the only thread running through the book–it may not even be the major one. The other dominant presence is the scientific community itself. Pages and pages of narrative are dedicated to the beginning, development, and collapse of competing theories about the nature of the planet Solaris. This field is called ‘Solaristics’, and is so well developed by the time in which the novel is set that there are theories about the theories about Solaris. A kind of scientific literary criticism has grown up to explain the various theories put out by the Solarists.

What’s clear on reading is the parallel between these two threads. Over and over we’re told that the scientific consensus is that meaningful contact between humans and alien life (especially whatever is on/involved with Solaris) is impossible given the differences between the species. The main character’s conclusion [spoiler alert] is that contact with Solaris has been so difficult to contact because it is the intellectual equivalent of a child. All the actions of the planet are explicable, according to the narrator, because they are dealing with an infant (or at least a ‘toddler’) deity. A creature of unimaginable power, but one that is still in the early stages of mental development.

Now, to be fair, that reading does fit some of the planet’s actions in the narrative. But only some of them. I would suggest two alternative readings, either of which is possible and either of which I’d like to see worked out by others who know more about Lem and the genre in general than I do. (To be fair: these ideas may already out there somewhere, I’m not a Lem or sci-fi scholar.)

First, Lem hints at some kind of relationship between the nearby stars and Solaris. On several occasions events in one or the other of the suns directly lead to actions on the planet’s surface, including actions that directly affect the doings of human beings. The first time something like this happened, I thought the book was moving in the direction of the alien intelligence being in the stars somehow and the planet being the equivalent of a big computer (or, more likely for the mid-20th century, a big calculator). The book did not explicitly move in that direction, but I think it might still be a legitimate reading.

Second, the two threads mentioned above are so obviously parallel to each other I thought the main character would realize that the fluctuations and creations of the ocean on the planet Solaris were similar to–if not the same as– the fluctuations and creations of the scientific community. For that matter, the same parallel could be drawn with civilizations, individual human beings, tribes, and any other number of human phenomenon. Contact, in that case, would have been a matter not of explicitly using words, but of conveying lives and world-historical movements. Just as the ocean creates diverse phenomena of varying (but still regular) structures and appearances that develop and unfold before collapsing back into primal matter, so human history and individual lives are thrown up, develop and unfold before collapsing back into that from whence they came. In both cases there is an overarching order and reason present, which we know instinctively, but which also defies explicit classification. (Which is where we as Christians can step in and talk about our theologies of Providence.) This similarity is one thing that might be useful in establishing what the scientists in the story so desire–meaningful contact between rational beings.

So there you have it, my 1000-word interpretation of a sci-fi classic. Please do pick this up and read it, it is excellent and well worth your time.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, located squarely on the center of the surface of planet Earth. 

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