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(vague, disconnected) thoughts on Lem's Solaris

Recently I read Solaris, a science fiction novel written by Stanislaw Lem in the 60s. I have read few works of science fiction, and this was an exciting introduction to a genre which, to me, seems flexible in its ability to work out ideas on society and existentialism.

The story concerns a man called Kris, first introduced as he is preparing to leave for Solaris [space] Station, where live-in scientists spend their days conducting research and experiments to do with the planet Solaris. The research has been ongoing for many decades, and yet the progress made in the attempts to understand the planet, its movements and reactions, is bare. The planet is entirely covered in a sort of ocean, and though it reacts to disturbances from the hands of the scientists, its reactions are not as predictable or intelligible as they should be, given the time, effort, and financial backing of the project. When he arrives at Solaris Station, Kris finds the place in disarray, and the scientists in various states of mental deterioration. Of the three people he expected to meet, one is dead; a second, Snaut, is tired and mistrusting of Kris; Sartorius, the third scientist, refuses to speak to him. Sartorius has an unexplained ‘visitor’ in his room, and when Kris finally questions Snaut about it, he simply laughs and says “When you’ve received some visitors yourself, you’ll understand.”

The truth of that statement is thrown into doubt. The story goes on: Kris’ visitor, when he receives one himself, is Harey, his ex-wife, who committed suicide in response to his dissolution of their marriage. How is it possible that her doppelganger can appear to him aboard the ship, given, firstly, that she is dead, and, secondly, that it is no mere feat to board an isolated space station? The solution is to do with an experiment conducted by the three scientists aboard Solaris Station prior to Kris’ arrival, while Gibarian was still alive: a prolonged radiation blast directed at the surface of Solaris. The visitors then started appearing to each of them afterwards, and it is judged that their appearance be some sort of communication between each of them with the planet.

Why did each fellow receive his visitor and not another person? Snaut suggests that each visitor is meant to be a sort of embodiment of the darker side of our minds, the physical manifestation of the horrors which we can safely imagine because we believe that it is impossible they will ever come to exist. “There are things,” says Snaut, “situations, that no one has dared to externalize, but which the mind has produced by accident in a moment of aberration, of madness, call it what you will. At the next stage, the idea becomes flesh and blood. That’s all.” He then goes on to argue that the whole aim of communication with a higher being (so to speak) like Solaris is to find something informative of ourselves in another being outside of our sphere of knowledge. Solaris, he argues, has acted like a mirror in this instance, but the image it shows us is not what we want to see and so we are revolted. Our exploration, our communication, all fails because we cannot find the right way to make sense of this being outside of our own faculties of knowledge.

This is perhaps the crux of the story. How are we meant to communicate with a being whose terms of communication cannot be said to be intelligible to us? Is it right for us to attempt at communication, or do we commit an abhorrent act?  Indeed, is it even right to think of communication with other beings in terms of right and wrong? And what was the point of this book-review-slash-fan-spiel? I am not entirely sure, to be honest. I am now reading Summa Technologiae, in which Lem seems to be drawing connections between our evolutionary history and the evolutionary history of technologies, and it is a thrilling read. I think what makes Solaris relevant in this instance is the idea that our methods of research and interaction are always developing, and that it makes very little sense to have assumptions (any, at all) about communication with these other possible alien beings, given that we do not know the terms of their own forms of communication, while at the same time we cannot escape a developmental history of thought, and our place in this history, except by pushing forward. Forgive how rushed (and possibly nonsensical) this post is, please. Just a point of interest from somebody for whom the whole world of science fiction is only now blooming.

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Tags: Lem, Stanislaw, communication, fiction, science

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Comment by Peter J. Matthews on March 1, 2014 at 0:39

It also makes very little sense to have (too many) assumptions about communication with other humans!

Especially if we never get feedback from our readers :-)

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