Solarian Absurdity

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.

Book: Solaris

Author: Stanislaw Lem

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 2002-11

Image: 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.

A Fountain of ‘Knowledge’

Man’s relationship with the cosmos, and by inversion, himself, is a joke: other worlds would never be so simple as to harbour life similar to our own, and it is insane arrogance on the part of humans to assume that we will find our own image, easily manipulated, beyond our own planet. And that which does resemble us will do so in a way that we cannot possibly understand, or even recognise. But Lem doesn’t let the issue rest here, his position is that of a sceptic rather than a nihilist. He signposts our biases, our arrogance, and our conceits. Indeed, clichéd though the term may be, Solaris is in many ways an existentialist treatise. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre dismissed the conceit that science alone is capable of capturing the essence of the world, Lem holds a similar disposition: the research station’s library is filled to the brim with books, reports, recordings – it is a fountain of “knowledge”. But this knowledge has proven useless in understanding the Solarian Ocean.

In the Tarkovsky adaptation, there is a bust of Socrates in the library, calling to mind the infamous slogan “all I know is that I know nothing”. The point is that human knowledge is superficial; we have accumulated so much of it, but it has only enabled us to understand the world insofar as we can conceive of it as an elaborate mechanism. But the transcendental part of our selves evades categorization; human knowledge, as manifested in science, cannot capture it. Our relationship with our own planet, our own history, is called into question.

Reflected in the opaque mirror of Lem’s alien ocean are human delusions: delusions relating to science, to man’s place in the cosmos, to relationships with others, and above all, to oneself.

Indeed, human knowledge itself is confined by the restrictive environment in which it has evolved. Science, according to Lem, is not objective, but a provisional discipline contingent on the subjectivity of the scientist – it is mind-dependent, and the mind is not reliable. The mind is itself embedded in society, and thus influenced by society’s ideals: science, therefore, is a product of society, and can be deformed by ideology to the point that it resembles quasi-religious faith. “Solaristics” – the school of thought that emerged from the study of the Solarian Ocean – exemplifies the ‘science-as-faith’ conceit against which Lem warns us. Science alone can only take us so far; measuring phenomena according to abstract hypotheses does not necessarily result in understanding; there is something far deeper involved. The saying “one cannot put a foot into the same river [or ocean] twice” is perhaps appropriate here: the world is caught up in a perpetual state of flux, the causal process forever ongoing; as such epistemological certainty cannot be acquired through grounding concepts and theories in the propositions of formal logic, which are indifferent to reality’s shifting landscapes.

DVD: Solaris

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: George Clooney

Distributor: Fox

Release date: 2003-07-29

Image: this idea has Marxist-Hegelian affinities, this is not to say that Lem conforms to the Soviet paradigm of literature. Granted, like a great deal of the literature that emerged from the Eastern Bloc, Solaris is shamelessly philosophical and saturated in an otherworldly mysticism, but Lem was first and foremost a Pole. Due to the relative literary freedom Polish authors enjoyed at the time, Lem was able to draw on ‘exotic’ influences: his hometown Lwow, for example, where he spent the first twenty-five years of his life, had just three years before his birth been the Habsburg city of Lemberg. It had been caught in a crisis of identity so common to many old imperial cities at the time: always a liberal, cosmopolitan city, steeped in intellectualism and culture, Lem’s Lwow ultimately knew not whether it was Polish or Ukrainian – it no longer had the security imposed upon it by the vanished Empire. Nonetheless, Lwow retained its cultural heritage, and the artistic aromas that had drifted in from Vienna and Prague: Kafka’s disillusioned visions of a shapeless world pulsing with uncertainty; Mach’s positivistic conception of a world governed by purely empirical processes, rather than an underlying metaphysic; Freud’s exposure of a civilization made up of individuals characterized by repressed, unconscious urges – Lem’s immediate literary palate abounded with colours. He was able to transcend the socio-political circumstances in which he wrote, submerging in the text ideas that were philosophically subversive in the USSR. Where Marxist dogma maintained that Communism, as realised by socialism, would be human society perfected, Lem posited that if man is alone in the cosmos, alienated not only from his peers but additionally himself, his perceptive faculties defective, his thoughts and ideas farcical, how could ‘perfection’ be anything other than an absurd ideal?

Lem’s outlook is undoubtedly cynical. Humans, he claims, fight and will continue to fight a Sisyphean struggle in space; something which similarly holds true for our own inner struggle. But this is not to say it is a waste of time; Lem isn’t altogether nihilistic. Indeed, although our predicament is absurd, the search for knowledge is quite simply constitutive of the makeup of our species. Karl Marx spoke of how “the animal is immediately at one with his life activity”; how “it does not distinguish itself from it” since “it is its life activity”. Man, on the other hand, “makes his life activity itself the object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity”. Whilst in many senses this is certainly true, there is a way in which man cannot fully distinguish himself from the life activity that is his search for knowledge; a search that cannot have an end point in time, just as the life activity of the animal has no determinate end point – mindless life activity is only cut short by death; we cannot help but to engage in it. Although the human mind, in all its narrowness, can only find itself at odds with the enigma that is the wider universe, it is necessarily determined to pursue the impossibilities that are certainties.

Lem may not be alone in his cynicism; other writers similarly doubt the capacity of science and technology to ultimately emancipate humanity. But Lem’s sober existentialist meditation is particularly unique: although Solaris expresses such a profound pessimism regarding the discovery of new worlds, and the ability of humans to adapt to them ‘spiritually’, the final note is not a sour one; Lem leaves us with Kelvin, who, freed from the planet’s clutches but alienated from Earth, descends to its surface while the research team prepares to leave. Rheya is gone; he vainly tried to cling to her, to that crystallisation of his mind’s residue, but as the clone came to terms with what she was, she had herself destroyed so as not to be a mutant, an instrument of the ocean’s mysterious will – she loves Kelvin, after all.

Knowing he will never be the same, Kelvin snakes through the remains of an old “mimoid” protruding from the ocean – it resembles, from above, an ancient Moroccan town. It is known that mimoids are formed by the accumulation of and the friction between the crawling, glutinous waves, and that their formation is prompted by the passing of a cloud. Their function, it seems, is to process and imitate, within its textures, external objects. But this one has since died, and so Kelvin sits at its shore, gazing out to the horizon, contemplating the infinity stretching out before him: despite his endless studies of this elusive but omnipresent ocean, he has never been in such close proximity to it. He sinks his hand into it, and soon, quietly, a wave envelops his hand in an air-tight glove, as if to mimic its form, before washing away.

Suddenly, through this innocuous moment, he is face-to-face with this invisible intelligence. He does not try to understand or ‘know’ it; he simply yields to the silent yet indelible presence of that which is beyond him. He is changed by this.

Marcus How is a recent graduate in Philosophy from the University of Nottingham, living in London. He is particularly interested in Marxism, existentialism, and Central Europe. Besides this, he is passionate about film, literature, history, travel and, to bind them all together, writing, both analytical and creative. Currently, he is hoping to build a career in journalism/writing.