Solaris, written between June 1959 and June 1960 and first published in 1961, is a very significant novel among Stanisław Lem's works.
First of all, Solaris is not only the most famous work by Stanisław Lem but also one of the most canonical novel in both Polish and world fantasy literature. It is so even despite the fact that the only existing English translation was done not from the original but the abbreviated French version.
Secondly, it is probably the first text in which Lem's epistemological pessimism is so intensly pronounced. At the beginning the protagonist performs complicated mathematical calculations so as to prove to himself that the surrounding reality is not just a hallucination and at the end he enthusiastically quotes theses which undermine the rationalism of science.
Thirdly, it is one of the writer's few works (apart from The Masque and, perhaps, Return from the Stars) in which a woman character plays an important role. The question whether in the case of Solaris the character is human or not is open and crucial for the philosophical message of the novel.
The story presented in the book goes as follows: a psychologist named Kris Kelvin lands on a research station built on a remote planet in order to get to know how the ocean that covers almost the whole planet's surface functions; to get to know the ocean that is actually a great organism. Previous theories (Lem summarises the whole history of the scientific discipline devoted to research on this phenomenon) did not want to admit that the ocean was an organism and called it a 'prebiological formation'.
The psychologist meets two scientists in the station and they turn out to be on the verge of madness. The body of the third of them, a suicide and former mentor for the protagonist, rests in the cold store. Soon a phantom of Kelvin's wife Harey, who died tragically, materialises at his side and at this point he begins to suspect himself of having mental disorders. The appearance of such 'visitors', materialised psychological projections embodying the most painful and embarrassing memories of the scientists, is caused by the Solaris ocean. The characters interpret it as an experiment performed on them in response to their experiments conducted on the ocean. The initial part of the book is powered by a struggle between the violent individual reactions (both Snaut and Kelvin try to get rid of their phantoms) and an attempt to maintain scientific objectivity.
The research undertaken by Kris shows that phantoms differ from humans in terms of molecular structure. They are not built from atoms but from far smaller particles: neutrinos. Gaining this knowledge makes it possible to get rid of the phantoms once and for all, but Kris objects to do so as he started to treat Harey as a human. His internal struggle powers the further development of the plot. On the other hand, Harey, while observing herself and listening to the scientists' taped conversations, realises that she is not a human but a peculiar research instrument created by the ocean. Being aware of it makes her completely alien to Kris and prompts her to a suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. However, the suicide turns out to be impossible because of her superhuman regenerative abilities.
Simultaneously, the scientists are working on 'Project: Thought' – an attempt to transmit the human electroencephalogram (that is the record of the electrical processes taking place in the brain) directly to the ocean plasma with the use of strong Roentgen radiation. Kelvin unwillingly agrees to be the source of this transmission. His main fear is that since the ocean is able to have insight in the human unconsciousness (something it proved by materialising the phantoms), it could also fulfil his subconscious wish to get rid of Harey, whom he started to have feelings for. After over a week of transmitting the message Kris experiences peculiar dreams, which may be an unclear reflection of the psychological life of the ocean or even an attempt of contact. Moreover, other phenomena which could be considered an answer given by the Solaris ocean appear, but they remain resistant to interpretation.
At the same time certain tension appears between Kelvin and Harey. Later we get to know that the scientists gave her recordings which explain her situation a little. Harey also talks with Snaut. One night she gives sleeping potion to Kris and she voluntarily annihilates herself with the use of the apparatus developed by Sartorius. Thus, the novel ends with a double disaster: the unhappy ending of love between Kelvin and the terrestrial prototype of Harey repeats itself and real contact between people and the Solaris ocean turns out to be impossible.
Over time the philosophical stories of the impossibility of contact became Lem's speciality (the first example that comes to mind is His Master's Voice). However, no other Lem's novel can come up to Solaris in terms of the emotional involvement of the reader. That is how Jerzy Jarzębski tried to explain its mystery:
Solaris may owe its popularity to a remarkably successful mixture of the serious issue of the Contact with an emotional and romantic plot. The position of the novel in the history of the genre results from the fact that Lem managed to create not only a particularly original vision of the partner of the Contact but also a model of literature in which the drama of getting to know the Inhuman is an integral part of the structure of the plot.
In other words, the novel blends philosophical fiction with a love story, or even a psychological novel of the same type in which several of the best examples of Polish prose of the interwar period were created. The synthesis happens in such a way that on both levels there is a symmetrical and pessimistic story about the impossibility to come into real contact presented. The relations between people and genres are subject to the same mechanism of misunderstanding.
Since the romantic thread is so important in Solaris, the female figure should be described with more detail as well. Harey's behaviour is a peculiar and bitter parody of the idea of a happy love. She literally cannot live without Kelvin: when they meet for the first time and the psychologist tries to run away from his wife's phantom, she shows her inhuman or rather superhuman nature: this perfect reconstruction of the slender and delicate woman turns out to be able to force a metal door and to immediately scar the wounds she suffered. Harey is a walking symbol of inevitable incompleteness of what one person knows about the other. That is because she embodies what Kelvin remembers about his dead wife. The errors in reconstructions are sometimes grotesque. On the one hand Harey 'remembers' the scientists that Kelvin met after her death, and on the other her knowledge of the world, and especially about the reality of the research station that surrounds her, is very fragmented. The physical proof of the incompleteness is Harey's dress which lacks a zip or other fastener due to the fact that Kelvin does not remember it. A gloomy, bodily allusion that only Kris understands is a scar on her arm left by the suicide injection from the past.
What is more important, however, is the fact that the character becomes more and more convinced that there is an inerasable feeling of strangeness between her and Kris, a man she loves, after all. Conversations, shreds of memories (which are basically Kris's memories) and finally observing her own thinking process lead her to miserable self-awareness. The moment when she realises that she does not sleep like others is very touching. Harey's ability to notice that she differs from humans actually proves how deeply she internalised her uncertain humanity.
Finally, Solaris is Lem's first satire on science. Its subject is solaristics which explores the phenomena created by the ocean, speculates on the possibilities of entering into contract with it and philosophises about its 'life' or 'intelligence'. In effect, the only thing that science has to offer are terms, because the theories do not help the characters in confronting the foreign element. Stanisław Bereś mentioned the mocking tone of the summary of the research on the planet. The serious problem of human condition is more important than the clashes between characters and the mistrust in science, which over time was reduced to constructing an enormous catalogue of phenomena taking place on the surface of the ocean. The lofty, renaissance philosophy which says that the man is the measure of all things gives way to the scepticism about the usefulness of such measurement tool. One of the characters says that people go to outer space, but they actually do not want to explore it; they just want to expand the Earth to its limits. In other words, for people there is no difference between understanding and appropriating.
In the last chapter the Gnostic idea of God's defects appears during the conversation between Kelvin and Snaut: God evolves in vain in order to go beyond his limits. According to this conception a thinking ocean could be only an embryo of such quasi-divine organism. And although it becomes neutralised as another hypothesis that does not explain anything, a similar thread will later appear in His Master's Voice. The alleged cognitive disability of the ocean is described a little bit earlier in a risky hypothesis that the ocean is unable to perceive people as individuals. On the other hand there is another rational opinion by Wojciech Kajtoch. He believes that the hypothesis formulated by the scientists in the novel does not have scientific value even in the fictitious reality of Solaris. It is rather of psychological nature: it is the last line of defence against the unknown. Emotionally it is easier to accept something that the characters themselves describe as 'bad mysticism' than to confront something absolutely incomprehensible.
Lem chose a peculiar yet effective way to increase the intensity with which the descriptions of the inconceivable affect the readership. The narration is maximally traditional and the number of fantastical secondary elements is reduced to the minimum. An example of a distinctive detail is for example the decision to send all robots to the storehouse, which is described in the backstory.
The 'transparent' presentation of all cognitive and philosophical complications was emphasised by Edward Balcerzan. The problem of incompatibility of language and reality and the lack of scientific terms to describe phenomena are among the main topics of the book but they do not destroy narration. Solaris uses artistic languages of two epochs: the 19th and the 20th century, that is it makes use of the achievements of the realistic novel and the avant-garde. The cognitive risk becomes more important for Lem than the stylistic risk, which was faced for example by another important writer of the genre, Brian W. Aldiss (Barefoot in the Head).
In the light of such coherence of the novel we are rather surprised at the author's words:
When I set Kelvin in the Solaris station and made him see the terrified and drunk Snaut, I did not know what could have been the thing that had scared him. I did not have the slightest idea why Snaut was afraid of a common visitor. At that moment I did not know but I was about to learn it because, after all, I was carrying on with the writing.
A curious commentary to the novel appears in the book Lemie! Po Co Umarłeś? [translator's note: Lem! Why Did You Die?] by Robert Stiller. The author points out quite a lot of psychological improbabilities, just like Kelvin's constant shivering, which of course would not predispose him to working in a space station. Kelvin is described as a character 'whose whole inner and outer life is limited to: first, getting exasperated by the phantoms of his dead lover to the point that he thoughtlessly and brutally sends one of them in the outer space and later slobbering over her and starting to sleep with the other phantom. These several reactions are enough for him to feel tragically yet strongly attached to her'. Later Stiller does something that brings to mind the fictitious reviews from Lem's A Perfect Vacuum (and he admits doing this): he retells an alternative, slightly parodic version of Solaris in which various emotional relations between the humans and the phantoms created by the ocean are assigned to many more characters. This non-existent version of the book, placed halfway between psychologism and a soap opera, lets us make an interesting observation concerning Lem's writing. In the face of this comparison Solaris turns out to be a book simplified in the same way that parables tend to be simplified.
Solaris has got a rich tradition of film and theatre, or even ballet, adaptations. The English dance theatre attempted it in 1987 (direction: David Glass, screenplay: Tony Haas). There were also some peculiar adaptations performed in 1990 by the Dnepropetrovsk Opera and Ballet Theatre.
The first attempt to bring the novel to the screen was forgotten. It was a two-part film made for the Russian television by Boris Nirenburg in 1968. Four years later there was another adaptation of Solaris directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem's fierce argument with the director on the set in Moscow is often recalled. Lem wanted a more artistic vision of the planet in the film and he did not like the fact that the director wanted to resign from including most of the scientific dilemmas that are present in the novel. The author also had some objections to the extended backstory concerning what happened on Earth before Kelvin's flight to the station. In Stanisław Bereś's book-interview with Lem called Tako Rzecze…Lem the following summary of the whole conflict appears:
This director is a die hard. It’s impossible to convince him, because he will always understand everything in his own way.
And indeed, with Tarkovsky as director, Solaris became a chamber psychological drama which was visually well thought out, although it was carried out with modest financial means. It develops quite slowly: the full version of the film lasts almost 3 hours. The first 70 minutes of the film tell the story of what happened before the phantom of Kelvin's dead wife appeared. There are no impressive costumes and props: the characters walk around the space station in rather ordinary and worn out clothes. In comparison to their appearance Harey's elegance introduces the feeling of disturbing strangeness. Snaut, on the other hand, is presented as a sad and a slightly grotesque drunkard. All emotional elements were emphasised: Tarkovsky added the thread of the mutual dislike between Sartorius and Harey’s phantom and the culminating scene in the library was expressed only with actors' gestures. The thread suits the psychological profile of the scientist who also in the novel tended to treat 'visitors' more like physical phenomena than thinking entities.
The dialogues are very well thought out in Tarkovsky's film. For example, the word 'contact' is used only when referred to communicating with the ocean, but Sartorius also talks about the 'emotional contact' between Kris and his 'visitor', emphasising the strangeness of the phantom. There is also one great scene in which Kelvin tells Harey the truth about the life of her prototype using alternately 'you' and 'she'.
The final scene of the film shows the director's creativity independent of Lem's novel. Just after the conversation about coming back to Earth we see Kris next to his father's house. He looks at him through the window and sees that it is raining inside. This unrealistic element proves that the whole scene is another projection created by the ocean.
Nowadays Tarkovsky's film is considered a masterwork, although the director himself said that his preferred film is Stalker. The audience's opinion was not that favourable for Steven Soderbergh's version (2002). He introduced unnecessary action threads, such as Snaut's replica killing the prototype or the ocean making it difficult for the scientists to escape from the station. However, the principal focus was moved towards the relation between Kris and Harey.
Last but not least, there was a Polish theatre adaptation of Lem's novel. In October of 2009 in the Rozmaitości Theatre in Warsaw there was the premiere of the performance Solaris. Raport directed by Natalia Korczakowska. As a curiosity it is worth mentioning that Jacek Dukaj provided consultancy during the work on the performance.
Originally written in Polish by Paweł Kozioł, April 2011. Translated by MW, March 2018.