Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. San Diego: Harcourt, 1987.
I have to make one admission here up front: I have been reading late at night to help my brain calm down so I can get to sleep. That isn’t really even a problem, and I’m sure a lot of people do this—see Joyce’s quip about how Finnegans Wake‘s ideal reader was the “ideal insomniac”. But when you have a book like Solaris that is sort of moderately hard scifi, it does mean that I’m not super well equipped to give you an evaluation of the science-y aspects of the plot. I mean, not that I could really evaluate partical physics—or what passed for that in 1961 when the book was first written—on my best days, my published work notwithstanding. But I’ve noticed that when reading late, when I see something that would normally look off to me (some of the myriad mentions of neutrinos, for example, which I believe are uncharged charged particles that come from radioactive decay), I am just really accepting of what the author is telling me. Neutrinos? Sure, sounds good.
Don’t let my reference to the classiest subatomic particle of the 1960s frighten you away from Solaris, though. This book is not primarily a hard science one. Instead, it’s an attempt to construct an anthropology of a life form that would be completely alien to human beings.
Kris Kelvin arrives on the Solaris station to conduct research on the planet the station hovers above: a rather peculiar place called Solaris. It circles two suns, a red one and a blue one, but despite what physics would dictate, something is modifying its orbital trajectory to prevent it from crashing into either one. The planet is covered almost entirely by an ocean that appears to be alive, some sort of vast brain that is studying the researchers as they study it. On Kelvin’s arrival, he meets another researcher named Snow, who tells him that his mentor, Gibarian, has recently committed suicide. The ocean, it seems, has begun digging through the subconscious minds of the researchers to produce copies of loved ones from their pasts; it is unclear if the copies exist as a, perhaps hostile, response to an x-ray bombardment experiment, or if they are part of some sort of sophisticated research being conducted by the ocean, or if there is some other explanation entirely. For Kelvin, the only researcher whose “copy person” we see, the copy is of his deceased wife, Rheya, who committed suicide ten years before the mission began. The book alternates with Kelvin coping with the reality of having his former partner returned to him and with giving us a summary of research done concerning the planet.
This book was originally published in 1961 (in Polish), and there are certain aspects of it that remain highly rooted in the past. The characters contact each other as often through written letters or notes as by video phone, for example. The character of Rheya exists in the sort of gauzy, out-of-focus light that always seemed to me to accompany women in scifi in the sixties—she’s not a researcher, though clearly not dumb (she becomes aware of her own doubleness quite early on). Yet for the most part, her opinions on her doubleness, on Kris’s behavior, or on any other aspect of the situation are not given; Kelvin’s internal journey is what is important. (Well, he is the narrator, but for how much he professes to love her, he’s remarkably uninterested in her.) Like Uhura and other women in scifi of that era (and even still today to an extent), she’s very much in the background, existing primarily to give Kelvin someone to moon over, but also to prompt his failed hero’s journey. Which is to say, Joseph Campbell sees the hero’s journey as first interior, requiring the defeat of inner demons before facing down the outer ones; here, Kelvin’s inner journey taking precedence over anything the exterior world could offer. He is, in effect, a stunted hero, unwilling to complete the first stage of the journey to begin the second. In this respect, Snow is the real hero who, having conquered a similar visitor from his past (who is never seen), is willing to stay and try to make contact with the ocean.
Many of the film adaptations have focused on the Rheya–Kris relationship, much to Lem’s apparent displeasure. The real subject here is the alienness of the planet,how humanity is to approach such an object, how contact might possibly be able to take place (or might not). But at the same time, it’s difficult to blame the filmmakers entirely for the shift—despite Kris’s real lack of attention to Rheya, at the end, after she has left him again, his attention is still focused entirely on her and the possibility of her return.
The book makes an excellent point about the presumed humanness of alien lifeforms—looking at popular culture, we have always seemed to hope that we were going to meet Time Lords, or Vulcans, or Klingons, all of whom look largely human. Even Wookies and Ewoks are humanoid, as are the various species in the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and the most bug-eyed of bug-eyed monster, the Dalek, is descended from the human-looking Kaled, with their divergence from the human form serving as a shorthand for their descent into evilness. If we ever actually go into space and meet life, Lim says, will it be in a recognizeable form? It has been suggested that there could be fish, or fish-like lifeforms on Europa. Suppose they’re intelligent—would we be able to recognize them as such? The answer is no. Perhaps because we’re too caught up in ourselves, as Lim suggests, unable to describe the behavior of non-humans without anthropomorphizing. Or our lens, our expectations, are just too strong.
Concerning the translation: Apparently, Lem was fluent in English and didn’t like the Kilmartin–Cox translation. I had never really felt like there were any deficiencies with it, but I have not compared it to the French edition, and of course I don’t read Polish. As I write this, I’m listening to a sample of a new (well, newer) edition translated directly from the Polish by Bill Johnston. Perhaps this is just because it is an audio book, but it feels very different. Rheya is called Harey, and some of the details are quite different from the edition I read. All in all I will probably not have time to go back and read or listen to the Johnston edition right now, and clearly I don’t have enough information about the original or the French version to really make a comparison, but I will note that it seems like it is a well-regarded edition.
One other note concerning the film adaptations: There have been three major film adaptations—one directed by Nirenberg and Ishimbayeva (1968), one by Tartovsky (1972), and one by Soderbergh (2002). For some reason, I thought that Event Horizon, one of the scariest and least comprehensible films of the mid-1990s, was also an adaptation of the text—I even told this to a friend at a party. It turns out that, although Event Horizon was clearly influenced by Solaris, they’re not related. However, going into the book believing this made it actually pretty tense; the first few chapters are already full of tension because of Kelvin’s arrival on the station, his immediate suspicions about Snow, the revelation of the death of Gibarian, and so on. Waiting for the characters to start ripping their eyeballs out just made that worse.
 This is attested in Herschel Farbman, The Other Night: Dreaming, Writing, and Restlessness in Twentieth-Century Literature, Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 91, but the page with the references isn’t shown on Google Books, and tracking it down this far is about as much as I’m willing to do for a book review. However, it looks like it came out of Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, which is kind of a warmup for the Wake in the same way The Crying of Lot 49 was a warmup for Gravity’s Rainbow . . . or possibly in a totally different way. As an aside, I highly recommend the letter of protest written by “Vladimir Dixon.” (Actually, that may be the only one that’s a warmup. It’s the only one I actually read.) Or, looking more closely at the quote in The Other Night, it may actually be in the Wake itself. I don’t know and I’m tired of chasing this down. Sorry. This is the longest failed footnote ever.
 Attempt no landing there.