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6.17.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

In the first scene of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, the protagonist climbs into some sort of spacecraft. Once he is strapped in, he is unable to move and a protective cone lowers and plunges him into total darkness. This is kind of how I felt as I began to read Solaris—totally helpless with no idea of what was going on.

Solaris is deliberately confusing and is one of the creepiest books I have ever read. Lem combines the ghost story, the horror story and the mystery story in a work of hard science fiction. Scary supernatural events within the context of the story take place in a setting that is already scary and supernatural from our point of view.

Our protagonist, Kris Kelvin, has been sent to join a team of scientists who are studying Solaris, a strange planet orbiting a distant star. People have been studying Solaris for generations and have come to the conclusion that the ocean that covers much of the planet is a life-form of some sort. Entire libraries have been written about it, documenting Solaris’s behaviour, and numerous attempts have been made to try to communicate with it, but despite humanity’s best efforts, Solaris remains a mystery. The scientific community has all but given up on trying to figure out, but Kelvin is fascinated by the planet and has gone to join the small research team that remains on Station Solaris.

When he arrives at the station he finds that one of the scientists, Dr. Gibarian, has committed suicide and the other two seem psychotically paranoid. Dr. Sartorius refuses to leave his room, and Dr. Snow tells Kelvin about ‘visitors’ to the station. After a little while on the station Kelvin too receives a ‘visitor’. A perfect living, breathing replica of his dead wife, Rheya, comes to him. All the people on the station have been visited by figures from their past and this is apparently what drove Gibarian to suicide and drove the other two mad.

Kelvin knows the visitors must have something to do with Solaris, thinking that they are perhaps an attempt at communication. He spends much of the rest of the book reading through the station’s library, trying to find previous reports of similar phenomena. He realizes how little people really understand about the planet, and thinks it may be futile to even try to understand it.

Solaris the novel, like Solaris the planet, is very enigmatic. It has no clear message, and the story never really reaches a firm conclusion. But there are many possible interpretations. In some sense the book seems to be a critique of science. All attempts to understand Solaris scientifically have failed, and Kelvin’s final understanding of it is more religious than scientific. While many people consider religion and science to be at odds with one another, Lem implies that they are complementary. Science deals with what can be understood, religion deals with what is beyond human comprehension and therefore cannot be understood.

Another possible interpretation rises from Lem’s own background. Lem was writing in a communist Poland in which there were strict rules about what could and could not be published. Some see Solaris’s science-fiction setting as a way to slip political criticism past the censors. Solaris, an utterly inhuman, unresponsive entity, can be seen as analogous to the government.

Solaris is a difficult novel to read. The writing is choppy and awkward, but I think this is because the English version is a translation of the French version, which was itself a translation from the original Polish.

Even though the novel is short, it is quite slow-moving. A good portion of the book consists of Kelvin reading extremely detailed scientific reports. These get boring fast. There are also moments of genuine excitement and horror, though, which more than make up for the dull science bits.

On the whole, Solaris is well worth reading. It’s not always fun, but it rewards you for your patience. You don’t feel satisfied at the end, nothing is wrapped up, but you’re certainly left with a lot to think about.

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