Somehow, somewhere in my readings, I mistakenly picked up on the idea that Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) and 1961’s Solaris by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (whose name is the worst kind of tongue twister*) are novels of similar substance. I’m not sure what misled me to that assumption, but while they both share the “sapient celestial object” concept that is central to both novels, they are entirely different, with Solaris being a traditional sci-fi story in the generic tradition, gleaning elements from sci-fi pulps and Lovecraftian horror, while Star Maker‘s greater scope functions strictly as an existential examination of humanity. While Solaris also does the whole “existential examination” thing, it’s not monopolized by that conceit– it easily functions as a just-a-story. What similarities do exist are likely due to Stapledon’s influence on Lem, as is the case for a large segment of science fiction writers who grew up under the legacy of sci-fi’s staple don.
In Solaris, we meet Kris Kelvin, who arrives on the Solaris Station after years of space travel, only to discover the station in disarray, with one colleague dead, another isolated in his lab, and another drunk and making vague, ominous threats. On the planet below, the sentient ocean seems aloof, beyond the bounds of human efforts at communication, but when strange things start happening on the station, including the appearance of Kris’ dead lover, it seems as though extra-terrestrial communication may be far more difficult than humans ever imagined or desired.
To say that Solaris is a lesser story when compared to Star Maker isn’t saying much, because most SF novels are, and really, the two can’t be compared. In fact, Solaris is an interesting story, psychologically taut, and even freaky in places. It’s justifiably worthy of its place on the SF Masterworks list considering the publication date (’61), and the Big Idea it’s working with, which even today invokes enough wonder to overcome the discordant issues that come with translation and dated style. There are moments of dry back-and-forth dialogue that I’ll normally forgive in early ’60s fiction, despite Lem’s annoying tendency to make the characters repeat things to each other, things the reader already knows or would be better off figuring out. (Perhaps some of this discordance is due to Polish literary style?)
While there is the signature of Lovecraft in this tale of the monstrous unknown, Solaris feels more like Don A. Stuart’s (actually pulp mag guru John W. Campbell) gummy but creepy 1939 novel, Who Goes There?, with its sense of isolation, contagion of paranoia, and alien manifestations of humanity lurking around every corner. It also feels like an ancestor of Jeff VanderMeer’s (2014) Southern Reach series, with the detached, inhuman presence of nature’s psychic gestalt making all kinds of ominous, disturbing things happen to and around the main characters.
It’s a creeper, is what I’m trying to say, where dead girlfriends stalk their lovers on space stations and researchers kill themselves to escape the corporealizations of their own guilt-ridden nightmares… never revealed to the reader, making it all the more chilling. One particular spook is seen, but never explained, and makes me wonder which of those researchers is the guilt-ridden racist. Visiting Solaris is the ultimate guilt trip.
What makes this novel an important stepping stone in the SF genre is that Solaris is a somewhat early example of SF’s confrontation with human limitations– a jettisoning of sci-fi’s chrome-colored glasses, if you will– recognizing the very real possibility that commune with extra-terrestrial life may be beyond human capability, both in skill and fortitude. Even when faced with a planet-sized alien consciousness, contact with such an overwhelming intelligence may be impossible and even unsafe. In this sense, Solaris achieves a similar level of dissension as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (2015) or (and I haven’t read this yet, but) Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (1972), where the central thesis goes against the popular futuristic imaginings of the time to point out those pesky risks that kill the sci-fi mood. (However, though I’ll happily follow Robinson to the ends of space-time rationalism, the optimist in me is more inclined to view Lem’s thesis as paranoid of outsiders.**)
But what makes this novel a Masterwork is Lem’s pursuit of the depths of the human psyche, positioning Solaris as a psychological treatise on guilt, a recognition that the monsters of repressed guilt and regret are more frightening in isolation than any overt physical threat to our lives, and any situation that forces us to confront our repressed internal turmoil may be more than we can handle. The scientists of Solaris Station represent four different reactions to this confrontation with guilt, transitioning from mild to extreme: avoidance to suicide, disputation to isolation, anxiety to antisocial behavior, and wariness to denial (masquerading as acceptance), the last exemplified by Kelvin himself when he initially denies his ex-lover’s appearance, and then comes to accept and protect her manifestation, thus denying the reality of her true death. No stage of these transitions is comfortable to read, but all are wholly compelling. Even modern authors aren’t always willing to pursue the cobwebby corners of their characters’ psyches, as was the case of my last review, the novella Binti (2015), where human communication with dangerous aliens is easily achieved and perfunctory, glossing over the numerous revelatory opportunities to explore the protagonist’s interactions with her foes at a deeper emotional and human level. (As to whether Binti, being directed at younger audience, has more leeway to gloss over these opportunities is another discussion.)
Several good sources warn of a certain stiltedness with Solaris, and while certain aspects will annoy, it’s not bad for 1961, and I may have selected a better translation. The Bill Johnston translation is highly recommended.
*I keep calling him “Stanislaw Slim.” Would he please stand up?
** Although, and I’ve said this before, I am the person who thinks if Lovecraft’s protags would just bother talking to his monsters, it would all turn out to be a colossal misunderstanding. Cthulhu probably just got off on the wrong inter-dimensional exit and needs directions and a Snickers bar. (Except for those ancient cone people in Antarctica. They seem like bad news.)