Solaris

By Stanisław Lem


Essay 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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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

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Hothouse

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Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
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Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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The Handmaid's Tale

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The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

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Crash

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The Crystal World

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A Case of Conscience

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Dandelion Wine

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Fahrenheit 451

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The Illustrated Man

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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The View from the Seventh Layer

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The Master and Margarita

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Moderan

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A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

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Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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Little, Big

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The Fifty Year Sword

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House of Leaves

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Babel-17

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Dhalgren

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The Einstein Intersection

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Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Ubik

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VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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Aura

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American Gods

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Neverwhere

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Burning Chrome

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Neuromancer

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Light

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Dune

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Practical Magic

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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The Dispossessed

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The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Big Time

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Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

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Mann, Thomas
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Hell House

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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The Final Programme

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Beloved

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Ada, or Ardor

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Ringworld

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Love in the Ruins

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More Than Human

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Some of Your Blood

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Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

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Warm Worlds and Otherwise

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The Witches of Eastwick

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The Illuminatus! Trilogy

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Cloudstreet

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Orlando

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The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

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This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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