The Ocean Within

Solaris Bokk Cover resizedAdmittedly, I have been somewhat prejudiced towards science fiction literature throughout most of my adult reading life. I always pictured the genre as very male and very Anglo – a refuge for boys spending way too much time in their bedrooms building spaceships with their Meccano sets and adults posing at fan conventions as their favourite heroes in full costume and face paint.

I was happily proven wrong by last year’s controversy in the run-up to the genre’s most prestigious award, the Hugos. The Hugos are voted for by attendees to the annual World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) and in 2015, a faction of conservatives calling themselves the Sad Puppies tried to highjack proceedings. Their grievances mirror the wider gripes of angry white middle-aged men fearing cultural irrelevance: in their view, the awards have become too highbrow, too progressive, too politicized, too foreign. Alas, as a sign of how times have changed, their campaign failed miserably. The main award went to female Chinese writer Liu Cixin and for categories dominated by Puppies nominees, the fans overwhelmingly returned “no award” votes.

The whole saga made me think about diversity in science fiction, if not in terms of gender then of works originally written in languages other than English and I decided to revisit one of the classic works of foreign language SciFi: the philosophical space opera Solaris by Polish author Stanilaw Lem, originally published in 1961 and now available in a new translation by Bill Johnson.

When psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives at the soon-to-be-decommissioned space station on the planet Solaris he finds the small crew in disarray: the commander has killed himself shortly before his arrival, the station’s chief scientist has barricaded himself in his laboratory and the team leader has become a dishevelled, cynical drunk.

The planet, that gives the novel its name, is covered in a vast ocean which is in fact an alien organism. Shortly before Kelvin’s arrival, the scientists on the station, frustrated by their lack of making any inroads into communicating with this life form, conducted unauthorised radio-active bombardments of the ocean and disturbed the equilibrium between the observed and the observers. Soon after the experiment, mysterious “guests” have begun to appear out of nowhere and are haunting the crew. Kelvin himself is visited by the doppelganger of his late wife – a visit which unlocks hitherto repressed feelings of guilt and regret about her suicide.

Stanislaw LemBorn in 1921, Lem was one of the most popular post-war authors in Poland writing not only science fiction but also a range of influential philosophical essays on futuristic themes. Solaris, remains his most well-known work outside Poland, no doubt due to its film adaptations, the 1972 cult classic by Andre Tarkowsky and its lesser Hollywood remake by Steven Soderbergh.

Lem, though, wasn’t happy with either of the film versions because he felt they unduly emphasized the doomed love story of Kelvin and the avatar of his dead wife. I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space”, he complained.

This is, of course, a slightly disingenuous claim. Why, if it is not also about relationships, present Kelvin’s former wife as one of the mysterious guests. What is true, however, is that the book, unlike its Hollywood movie version, is not about second chances, not about rekindling relationships which were doomed the first time around. Instead, Solaris is a deeply melancholy meditation on the fundamental unknowability of others. Kelvin’s inability to understand Harley mirrors his and his colleagues’ inability to comprehend or connect with the vast ocean below the space station.

By the time Kelvin arrives at the station, the study of the planet Solaris which had been going on for decades has declined from initial enthusiasm to disinterest. Lem gives the reader a potted history of the science of “Solaricism”, explaining how different academic disciplines tried to explain the planet’s ocean, from early empirical observations filling volumes after volumes in the space station’s library to psychological and anthropological inquiries. Each approach yields as good as no insight and remains solely as a reflection of human consciousness projected onto the vast ocean.

For a science fiction novel published over half a century ago, Solaris remains surprisingly timeless. The space station itself has the lived-in feel customary to contemporary  books and movies about space exploration and the descriptions of technology have hardly dated (except for the odd ringing telephone). Still, for a slim volume of about 220 pages, the novel is not without its longeurs. The account of “Solaricism”, though integral to the premise of Lem’s plot, does exceed its welcome. The descriptions of the configurations of the magma-like ocean  illuminated by the planet’s two suns are filmic (Tarkowsky reportedly used coloured porridge in the days before CGI) but can get tiresome on the page.

Despite these shortcomings, Solaris remains an insightful investigation into the impossibility to truly connect and a potent reminder that diversity in SciFi started much earlier than this millennium.

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (newly translated from Polish by Bill Johnson), Faber & Faber (March 3, 2016)



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