Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris2Somehow, 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?)

Solaris3While 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.**)

Solaris1But 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.)


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22 thoughts on “Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    Interesting review. You make it seem a lot more freaky than most people who discuss it. I’ll have to grab it sometime 😀


  2. It was interesting, and an enjoyable book, but strangely didn’t leave a huge impression on me. The original film adaptation by Tarkovsky, on the other hand, I found quite mesmerising.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t seen any of the films and probably never will just because open a book is so much easier and demands less commitment. It seems from what I’ve read, the movies focus more on the love story part, no?


      • liminalt says:

        Jumping in here: the Soderbergh film focuses more on the love story. It’s a decent enough film, but disappointing compared to the book. I’ll second the recommendation for the Tarkovsky one though (which I actually thought worth buying): it captures a lot of the eeriness and also does well with the “alien-ness” of the alien, if that makes sense. I enjoyed the book a lot; interestingly I was more impressed with the fact of a truly alien lifeform eluding all attempts to understand it than with the psychological stuff; I feel I should re-read it sometime for that.

        Liked by 2 people

        • “Interestingly I was more impressed with the fact of a truly alien lifeform eluding all attempts to understand it”

          I thought that was cool, too. Perhaps I’m missing a paragraph and should have talked about that before I jumped right into the psychological aspects, which are either a method of or direct result of the alien probe… or neither, lol. To me. the planet seems so removed from the story, it didn’t actually become the focus of my notes, no matter how strange it seemed. I was much more interested in the reactions and interactions of the humans on the station, and I think the narrative points to that when it says things like “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors,” and “how can you communicate with the ocean if you can’t communicate with each other?”

          As for the movie, thanks for the recommendation. Movies just seem like such hard work for me to commit to. Our tv has basically become a postmodern sculpture in the living room.


          • Ditto what liminalt said, though I haven’t seen the Soderbergh film. I did buy the Tarkovsky film on DVD and can recommend it, but you have to be willing to allow the film to take you on that journey on its own terms.

            I think of Solaris’s aliens much in the same way as Arthur C. Clarke tried to imagine them in many of his stories, though how they wrote about them couldn’t be more different. Clarke just didn’t have that depth of psychoanalysis to portray the toll it might take on humans and I think mainly because he saw the universe in the same ecstatic rapture that Stapledon did (who was a huge influence on Clarke). But that feeling of something that is completely other is still there.


          • Yeah, I guess I can see that. All three authors share a powerful sense of humanism, too. But, as you suggest, Clarke was horrible at people. No nuance.


  3. marzaat says:

    Did you read the Killmartin/Cox translation? I understand there’s a new translation that’s better, but I haven’t read that one.


  4. marzaat says:

    Yes, I failed reading comprehension. I see you read the new translation.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jesse says:

    It’s interesting you attribute the characters’ reactions to the the situation on Solaris to guilt. It’s been several years since I read the novel, but I assumed the variety of their reactions is due to their failure/inability to understand and explain what is happening on the planet – said confrontation with the truly unknown/unknowable. Lem even tries to induce this same feeling in the reader with the logic-defying descriptions of the physical landscape. I guess I saw guilt as one of the reactions to this failure/inability, and not a motivating factor needing reaction, but I would need to go back and read the novel.

    One of the other major aspects of the novel is the way in which it undercuts pure rationalism and theology, particularly the way they attempt to assign concrete reality, or belief concrete reality can be assigned, to existence. The fact that much of science exists in the pure rationalist camp makes the novel interesting science fiction, indeed.

    If you have thirty minutes, there is an interesting discussion of Solaris at the podcast here (complete with beautifully pompous British accents – that vindicate your connecting Stapledon to Solaris):


    • Thanks for that podcast link. That was wonderful.

      No, I don’t think guilt is a motivation, it’s a consequence– I still haven’t decided whether it’s the Solaris ocean’s doing or a result of isolation (I hadn’t thought of it being a result of failure, though that’s interesting, too). There aren’t any direct quotations to make me assume everyone is experiencing guilt, but Kelvin’s conversations with Snaut and Sartorius gave the impression that they were battling their own guilt demons: Snaut mentions his divorce and says “I’ve lived years since yesterday” and says “that can’t be all” when Kelvin tells him about Harey’s suicide. Sartorius’ own behind-the-door battles/subservience to what sounds like a small child. Interestingly, the vagueness suggested a lot of direct things to me.

      And Snaut seems to think the ocean is a devil meaning to punish them. Then lots of narrative allusions to humanity’s ugliness, “Human beings set out to encounter other worlds, other civilizations, without having fully gotten to know their own hidden recesses, their blind alleys, well shafts, dark barricaded doors.”

      And then, of course, Kelvin’s quick willingness to live out the fantasy with Harey’s “ghost,” partly to deny his part in her death, and partly to punish himself by living out this strange reality.

      I couldn’t tell if the planetary descriptions felt odd and vague on purpose, or if it was a translation issue. Your comment and that podcast helped to clear that up. I especially loved that they pointed out Lem’s criticisms of American sci-fi. It certainly put him (and my structural complaints about Solaris) in a new light, and now I see a heavier influence of Stapledon. Will have to read Cyberiad next.


  6. S. C. Flynn says:

    The obligatory Malzberg reference!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] the vintage front: Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem, a psychologically-introspective, astronomically-extrospective commentary on the […]


  8. I’ve been sitting on my Kindle edition of Solaris for a year. Glad to read your review of it. Will have to bump it up on The List.


  9. […] is a rich, rewarding novel. The fact that Megan AM of Couch To Moon wrote very interesting things about how guilt works in the book – something I overlooked […]


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