Book Review

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Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

I don’t know if this book could be considered a modern classic of science fiction; or perhaps, a twentieth century classic would now be more appropriate, as it was published in 1961, in the author’s native language, Polish—it is, however, described on the rear cover as the masterpiece of this author. The first English translation was published in 1970: a delay which isn’t necessarily significant, but intriguing, nonetheless. It has certainly been considered good enough for two film versions to be based upon it: a rather dated-looking 1972 Russian version, with melodramatic music, and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; and a 2002 American version, produced by James Cameron & Jon Landau, starring the then [and still] hot property, George Clooney, and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who, according to the Wikipedia entry for it, promised to be closer in spirit to the source material—apparently, Lem disliked both renderings.

Notwithstanding that the type is quite small; possibly 10pt, at a guess, because this isn’t stated on the flyleaf; the book packs a lot into its 214 pages. There appear to be three distinct sections to it, although there is some overlap: the setup; action; and the philosophy incorporated in the story. The latter section occupies a significant amount of space and, in my own humble opinion, this is what Lem wanted to propagate, for which the story [action] is a vehicle. A space station [referred to as the Station], a description of which is not given until well over halfway through the book, is in low orbit around the eponymous planet of the story, which itself orbits two suns: one red, and one blue. There have been no reports from the Station latterly, implying a lack of progress in the research the Station was created for, so a spaceship, Prometheus [it is interesting to speculate if this was the inspiration for the 2012 film in the Alien canon] is sent from earth with a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, on board, but the length of Kelvin’s mission is indeterminate, as Prometheus doesn’t wait for him, once he is safely delivered to the Station. When he arrives, he quickly discovers that all is not well, but to reveal any more would spoil the plot; however, the encapsulated philosophy can be discussed.

Solaris is a water planet, with only isolated islands & archipelagos visible, and this is a very significant element of the story. The very nature of humanity is questioned, but it also raises the question of whether there is such a thing as absolute truth; or is it always [and only] subjective? Certainly, Kelvin’s encounters on the Station, for all his experience & expertise, change him profoundly. Incidentally, I discovered a hitherto unknown word in the text: auscultation, with which medical personnel might be familiar, as it refers to the action of listening to sounds from the heart, lungs, or other organs, typically with a stethoscope, as a part of medical diagnosis. Naturally enough, given the preponderance of philosophical observations in the book, at the end of the narrative, religion, and specifically Kelvin’s concept of it, comes under the metaphorical microscope, and the mysteries of existence itself are considered, something which space travel inherently seems to inspire [2001, A Space Odyssey et al], given man’s participation in exploration of a boundless cosmos/universe: nowadays, these two terms appear to be synonymous.

There is a lot more I could write about the articulacy of the book; for which English-speaking readers should be grateful to the translators, Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox; and the descriptions of occurrences on the planet are very detailed & copious, but to give them here would forewarn the reader as to how the narrative develops, so I will refrain, other than to say that Lem’s imagination is to be applauded. Arguably, all science fiction has an agenda, but the agenda of this story is right out in the open, and irrefutably thought-provoking. The paperback version I read was published in 2016 by Faber and Faber Limited, London, ISBN 978-0-571-31157-6.

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