Solaris

By Stanisław Lem


Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The science fiction establishment has gradually learned to love
Stanisław Lem. But Lem hardly returned the favor. He dismissed
most science fiction as poorly written,
ill conceived and too focused on the
clichés of adventure stories. The “Lem
affair,” as the resulting controversy
came to be known, grew so heated that
the author was expelled from the
Science Fiction Writers of America
in 1976.

But sci-fi guru
Philip K. Dick was even
harsher in his critique. He sent a letter
to the FBI denouncing Lem, and ac-
cusing him of being a communist party
functionary and a “composite committee
rather than an individual.” In all fairness
to Dick, he was suffering from schizophrenia at the time, and may
have had his own psychological composite committees with which
to contend. But his heated antagonism toward the brilliant Polish
writer was shared by many colleagues.

With the passing of the years, and with Lem’s own passing—he
died of heart failure in 2006 at the age of 84—tempers have
calmed, and the sci-fi world can appreciate this masterful writer
who deservedly ranks among the finest half-dozen authors of
speculative fiction in modern times. In a series of works, Lem cut
through the stale formulas of the genre. In time, his reputation
would also transcend the sci-fi label—usually avoided like the
triffids by authors who hope that their work will be taken
seriously—and as a result Lem earned awards and attracted
admirers who would hardly acknowledge Heinlein or Asimov,
Sturgeon or Clarke.

Solaris is Lem’s most famous work, and an excellent starting-
point for readers who want to make the acquaintance of this
seminal writer. What would happen, Lem asks, if an encounter
with intelligent alien life took place on a biological level beyond
our comprehension? What if the life form was so different that it
no longer matched our pre-conceptions of how organisms look
and act?

The planet Solaris is apparently uninhabited, except for the
scientists from Earth who operate a small research station. The
surface of the planet is covered by water, and the visitors marvel
at the range of patterns and forms taken by the waves, which act
in an awe-inspiring and sometimes frightening manner. But
cryptic events start taking place among the researchers, and the
only possible explanation is that the ocean is responsible. Can a
geographic fact, a part of the landscape, really be a life form? Or
can some other explanation be found?

Here, as in Lem’s best works, the limitations of human intelligence
play an important role in defining the drama and tension of the
narrative. (For another provocative example, check out Lem's
His Master's Voice, reviewed here.)  The naïve positivism of the
sci-fi genre is replaced by a hard-nosed  scepticism that
challenges many of our most basic assumptions. And Lem
achieves all this with a body of water? Yet, with the possible
exception of Steven Spielberg's
Jaws no story has made an ocean
seem quite so disturbing as
Solaris.

Critics of sci-fi often point out that the genre focuses on
spectacular surface effects, while leaving the psychological
depths untouched. This charge can hardly be applied to Solaris.
The “contact” with alien intelligence—if that is, in fact, what is
happening on the planet—takes on the appearance of an external
manifestation of the scientists' inner lives. The psychological is
made real, often in surprising and disturbing ways. As a result, the
exploration of this strange world takes on a dreamlike quality, a
haunting that the human visitors cannot escape since it seems
grounded in their own minds.

In Lem’s universe, heroism is usually suspect and adventure
inadvertent. "Behind every glorious facade," this author once
lamented, "there is always hidden something ugly." Such
pessimism is rare even among highbrow literary fiction, but in the
genre category where Lem made an uncomfortable home, it is still
a revelation and no doubt one of the reasons why this author has
inspired such mixed feelings among others in the field. Yet
readers should have no such qualms, and will do well to
familiarize themselves with this exceptional book and thought-
provoking author.
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Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
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