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.

Book Review

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The Accomplice, by Joseph Kanon

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, although as is often the case, the cover drew me in initially, with its grainy monochrome image [and the now almost ubiquitous shortcut of using one or more characters walking away from the viewer, to simplify the design process], and the supporting information under the author’s name, that he is the “bestselling author of Leaving Berlin”; also, the author’s bio informs us that, among his other works [some or all of which have won “the Edgar Award”: nope!] he wrote The Good German, which made me think of John le Carré, but it’s not one of his. This latter book, incidentally, has been made into a film, starring George Clooney & Cate Blanchett, although Kanon didn’t supply the screenplay; the film was given a lousy review in The Guardian, but it includes this sentence, which makes no sense to me [although I can’t be bothered to get to the bottom of it!]: “The Good German is culpably feeble and detached, especially considering that the original was released in 1942, and conceived far earlier:…” Kanon’s book was published in 2001, according to Wikipedia, [never knowingly incorrect?], so I wonder if the review was confused, having compared the film to “the kind of 1940s movie we know and love”: whatever, as previously stated… heigh ho, no such problem with this book.

The book is set in 1962, a febrile period in itself and, just for once [although, to be fair, this isn’t le Carré: Kanon is American], despite opening in Hamburg, no mention is made of East Germany and/or Communist machinations [normally associated with Berlin, the popular east-west interface, of course]; neither do our lovable moptops from the ‘pool get an honourable mention, which is a somewhat surprising omission, given that they performed in various clubs in that busy port of Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962, according to this Wikipedia article: presumably, this local colour must have been seen as an unnecessary distraction from the narrative. Aaron Wiley is visiting his elderly uncle Max, a Nazi-hunter, albeit not in the same league as Simon Wiesenthal, about whom Max is somewhat dismissive, seeing him as a publicity-seeker: Max is more methodical, preferring to work his way through dusty files & archives to achieve his results. He is trying to convince Aaron to join him, despite the latter having a solid but also unexciting desk job with the CIA at home in America. A chance sighting of an old enemy, while the two of them are drinking coffee outdoors, is such a shock to Max, that he suffers a heart attack, but he is able to tell Aaron that, although the man he saw is by all supposedly reliable accounts already dead, Max is in no doubt whatsoever that he was not mistaken, so it would be the crowning glory to his career if this fugitive was brought to justice.

Unfortunately, Max dies, so after much soul-searching, Aaron decides to continue Max’s work, but although it will be unofficial, as it is a personal matter, one of his local colleagues is able to give him limited assistance; also, he hooks up with a local news photographer who scents a very good story. It transpires that the fugitive, Otto Schramm, has a daughter, and Aaron establishes a relationship with her, to get to her father but, inevitably, Aaron falls for the woman. I can’t really go any further than this with the story, but there are a few unexpected twists in the narrative, before the dénouement, which is somewhat bitter-sweet. Overall, this is quite a good story: one which is very firmly set in its timeframe, because much later, and none of the original perpetrators would be left alive. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., ISBN 978-1-4711-6268-8.