Solarian Absurdity

by Marcus How

16 February 2011

In his classic SF novel Solaris, Stanislaw Lem composes an ode to the absurdity of the human struggle for knowledge. No better is this struggle encapsulated than in the infinite expanse of space and in the discovery of new worlds.
George Clooney in Solaris (2002) 

Terra incognita: with the end of the 19th century, the consolidation of man’s earthly discoveries rendered this expression obsolete. New lands, uncharted territories, previously unknown, lay naked before the ravages of industry. Slowly, the world began to shrink; and the mystery behind the distant shores beyond the horizon lifted. Stories of the one-eyed, headless creatures in sub-Saharan Africa; Central American myths of the white gods across the ocean in Spain; fears of Satan residing in the oily depths of the South Atlantic – the superstition and ignorance regarding the unknown world dissipated.

History reveals that it is in the nature of humans, as part of a species with an insatiable hunger for knowledge, to seek out new unknowns. And so with its mastery of its immediate environment, the human eye turned to the heavens: space. Myths, beliefs, superstitions, stories – between which there are arguably only very slight distinctions – always correspond to the ideological structure of the societal epochs in which humanity finds itself. As regards the unknown, there is undeniable continuity between the beliefs of ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’ society. Literature reflects this; where before there was Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad, and Shakespeare’s Tempest, soon after there was H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov – and it from this that, I believe, science fiction emerged. It captured the public imagination’s sense of wonder, mystery, and fear.

cover art


Stanislaw Lem

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: Nov 2002

The phenomena only really acquired importance during the Cold War and the ensuing “space race”. Different attitudes prevailed in the respective cultural thought of the ‘capitalist’ West and the ‘socialist’ East. The science fiction of this period reveals that, for the Soviets, the emphasis was on the philosophical, on the human – in other words, not what the discovery of other worlds does for humanity in furthering itself, but rather what, to paraphrase Stanislaw Lem, other worlds tell humanity about itself, through the proverbial mirror they present to it. For the most part, Soviet science fiction saw Communism in the mirror of space, these works serving merely as propaganda.

Stanislaw Lem, not only as a Pole but also as a great writer, transcended the ideology and politics of the USSR to produce the exotic masterpiece that is Solaris, a book which encapsulates the said philosophical principle as much as it inverts it. The book has withstood two film adaptations, one Russian, the other American; the former by Andrei Tarkovsky, the latter by Steven Soderbergh; whether complete justice is done to the source material in either case is arguable, but this will not be discussed here. Instead, it will be illustrated just how much there is to be mined from this book, not just regarding the cosmos and man’s fruitless attempts to understand it, but also questions concerning memory, personal identity, love, dreams – or, better put, the past.

Focusing on issues concerning the past in a novel dealing with the future of mankind may seem paradoxical in some respects; but this is what lends Solaris – on top of its many thematic layers – a haunting, poetic quality. It is the past of each individual that makes him vulnerable; and each scientist aboard the research station is lumbered with his own emotional baggage, submerged only by the mask that is his social persona. Beneath them is the titular planet’s ocean; a rolling, swelling, restless infinity, glutinous, an inanimate dreamscape bathed in curious calm; but there is a feeling that it observes, that it probes. The scientists, in an effort to intellectually master this behemoth, meticulously record all observable phenomena (Lem takes great relish in the graphic, complex astrobiological descriptions), but to no avail: over the course of a century, they grapple with a plethora of proposed theories that might shed light on the nature of the planet’s ocean, but their pace is that of a snail as one theory is replaced by another, the substitute only to be falsified at some later point.

The inner workings of the planet are beyond human comprehension; and so science becomes increasingly redundant, human concepts unable to measure anything beyond appearances. And yet while they are unable to discover anything substantial about the planet, each scientist’s subconscious, against his will, is locked in deep communication with it. There is something transcendent in the sentient ocean, something beyond physicality, and it lays bare to each scientist his past. Everything grinds to a halt; the head scientist, Gibarian, sends out a transmission begging for help, before killing himself; his friend, psychiatrist Kris Kelvin, is sent to investigate; but again, whatever scientific prowess he has is useless as a means to understanding the profound and disturbing occurrences aboard the station.

Soon, from the abscess of his past, his late wife materializes. Rheya has been dead for ten years, having committed suicide by lethal injection – but there she appears, a spectre, raised up from the platform of his dreams and assembled from the fragmented memories buried deep within Kelvin’s subconscious. She is identical to the Rheya of Kelvin’s past, and where he has aged, she has not. Rheya is the personification of Carl Jung’s archetype of ‘the shadow’; that is, a materialization of the neglected aspects of Kelvin; the bitterness, the anger, the regret, the sadness. Since her death, her abstract has cast a presence over her widower’s life, but now that abstract has taken on a material form. Curiously, she is indifferent to his environment, and to those around him: she is his proverbial shadow.

At first, he wants to be rid of her; but slowly, as she is continually resurrected, he comes to accept and even become attached to this clone. But she isn’t Rheya as she was; she is Rheya as Kelvin idealizes her. Certain aspects about her are grotesquely enhanced, such as her emotional fragility, her depressive tendencies, perhaps even her beauty.

This is one of the fascinating strands Lem raises within the book – that is, the unreliability of memory, and of our own perceptive faculties. The memory of someone immediate to us is an abstract, albeit cohesive whole. Should we, for whatever reason, become estranged from that immediate someone, over time that cohesive whole will break up into individual fragments. These fragments then grow distant from one another; continental drift provides an apt metaphor for the process. All we are ultimately left with is a residue of that person – individual memories, remembered character traits, but never a complete, rounded picture. Even the face of the person becomes flat and indistinct, as if it were submerged beneath water’s translucent surface. Assemble these distorted, disproportionate fragments into a material whole, and we would be faced with something not unlike the phantom Solaris’ ocean uses as a means to probing Kelvin.

What Lem especially appears to be showing, moreover, is that perceptions and memories of people are shaped almost entirely by the agent. We do not see them as they are; we see them as we want to see them. We do not – and cannot – love people entirely for themselves; we love them for what it is about them that satisfies the conceits within us. And how we perceive, remember, and interpret a person, be it positive or negative, somehow flatters our own vain image. To assemble a loved one in this way would leave us with a clone profoundly different from the original. Indeed, the clone would say more about our very selves than the loved one in question – and this is precisely what both puzzles and horrifies Kelvin and the scientists. At heart, the message of the novel is this: how can humans seek to understand other worlds when they scarcely understand, nor wish to fully understand, their own inner selves?

I mentioned Lem’s belief that what humans seek are not other worlds, but mirrors, through which its own image can be flattered. In the alien world of Solaris, nothing human (nor even anything humanoid) is seen in the proverbial mirror: Kelvin’s direct encounters with the planet are beyond our limited faculties. But keeping in mind our own limited understanding of our very selves, I believe there is something fundamentally human reflected in the mirror; the scientists’ inability to grasp this ocean reflects their same inability to grasp themselves. Our inner lives closely resemble the qualities captured by Lem’s description of the ocean: infinite, probing, elusive; forever in flux. Neither can be understood purely through science, which is why in the novel the attempts to make contact with the planet (on its own terms) are such dismal failures: it is rather like trying to jump on one’s own shadow. Any sustained contact, imbued with any sense, is impossible – and the same more or less holds true in our relationship with the mind. It is beyond the limitations of our waking life.

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//Mixed media