Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Classic Sci-Fi Meetup: Solaris

Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel “Solaris” is probably his most well-known work, having been adapted multiple times—most notably the Tarkovsky (1972) and Soderberg (2002) film adaptions. It's a pretty influential work, and thus a pretty good selection for the Chicago Classic Sci-Fi Meetup.

I think Solaris is an important book to read in terms of the history and ideas of science fiction, although user enjoyment may vary—a number of folks at the meeting expressed the idea that they “enjoyed having read it more than they enjoyed reading it”, which is perhaps fair. I've found the work kind of haunting, though, and I've returned to it quite a few times over the years—so I wouldn't want you to think that everyone will find this tough going.

The novel is set in a distant, space-faring future. One planet—Solaris—has evaded human comprehension for many decades. It's covered in an ocean—possibly one superorganism—that creates strange and inexplicable constructions, and can change basic physical constants (altering the planet's gravity to maintain a stable orbit in its binary system, for instance). Our story begins when our narrator—a psychologist—arrives at the main research station hovering over the planet, to find that a whole new class of phenomena has begun—“manifestation” of people seemingly pulled from the researchers' minds. Possible spoilers below!

We began our discussion with some comments on the Tarkovsky and Soderberg films (the latter of which I haven't seen, so I can't speak directly to it). Both films deviate pretty strongly from the philosophical thrust of Lem's work, with Tarkovsky's exploring a lot of themes of grief and loss, while the Soderberg plays up the romance angle. Tarkovsky's “Solaris” is worth watching purely as the Soviet cinematic challenge to Kubrick/Clarke's “2001” (1968), by the way.

We talked for a bit about the experience of reading it. A major critique was the abrupt “stalling out” of the plot about half or two-thirds through. Some of us were more amused than others by the lengthy bits of academic satire here: at several points the book begins what seems like a normal science-fictional exposition-dump, only to continue, at chapter-length, what seems a satire of bureaucratic, factionalized, faddishly-theorizing Science. I actually rather like these bits, as well as the lengthy cataloging of “weird Solaris features”, because they set up the weird Otherness of Solaris (and by extension otherness generally) and the hubristic and ultimately futile attempts to understand or communicate with it. They also provide us with almost our only direct description of the ocean and its bizarre creations, because, except for the final coda, our narrator never leaves the fairly narrow environment of the station.

Alice brought up Thomas Kuhn's “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962), which looks at the ways that scientific understanding of the world is in many ways less about the data and more about the interpretation, and how that interepration can and does make dramatic shifts, particularly along generational lines. Highly recommended if you're looking for some approachable non-fiction reading on the history/philosophy of science, by the way. Zaid, who's a working physicist, brought up the way that approaches to quantum mechanics are changing as younger scientists (who grew up with the theories and find them less weird/needful of metaphorical intermediaries) make up a bigger percentage of the field.

Along with failure to understand, failure to communicate is a major theme of the work. Indeed, most pessimistically, this may be read as a work on the impossibility of communication. Not only is the alien Solaris ineffable, but it seems that our human characters have and continue to fail to communicate with each other—even with their lovers. This resonates throughout the novel in Kelvin's difficulty talking to others on the station--it's constantly through doors, videophones with the video manually blocked, or, in Harey's case ("Rheya" in some translations), never honestly.

This feeling of existential isolation, the idea of a person as "a repeater of suffering felt ever more deeply as it becomes increasingly comical through multiple repetitions", and the melancholy which grips Kelvin for the latter part of the book--all put us in mind of writers like Sartre & Camus over SF authors from the same time period. We wondered--without much knowledge--about how to fit Lem into an SF tradition: we know he read American SF, and respected Philip K. Dick's work (and indeed, Dick is the one SF writer we thought to compare with Lem), but we didn't know any other Polish SF offhand, and little Soviet or Slavic SF besides--Zamyatin's "We" (1924) and the Strugatsky brothers' work (new translations of which are starting to show up!) pretty much exhausted our knowledge.

We found Kelvin's "reality test" patently ludicrous, though--it wouldn't disprove a dream-state nor an external deceiver.

We also talked a little bit about some of Lem's other work, particularly "The Cyberiad" (1965), which is also quite philosophical, but far more humorous--we compared it to "Borges adapted by Douglas Adams".

A note on translation, by the way--until fairly recently, the only English translation of "Solaris" was a Polish to French to English version: not ideal. That's the edition I originally read; reading the new direct translation, I didn't notice too many changes--names being the most noticeable--as well as a few scenes that seemed smoother, and possibly (I forgot to go double-check) some slight extensions of a few passages.

In some ways, Solaris works best in the horror genre, and it surprises me that it hasn't been adapted in that mode. In particular, Lem knows that what we don't see is scarier than what we do--and the manifestations suffered by the other researchers are all the more horrific because we don't see them. The scenes where Snaut is apparently holding the hand of his hidden visitor, or where Sartorius talks to Kelvin outside a door he's barely holding closed--great stuff.

We commended the book for a general lack of techno-obsolesence--with few exceptions, most of the tech is off-screen. We did think it a bit hilarious that they would bother to drag physical libraries of paper books to distant stations. It's a particularly interesting choice given that Lem used holographic & computer databases in other work--might have been more of a stylistic choice, to give Kelvin something to physically do, and to convey a sense of weight--the possibly futile labyrinth that thousands of scientists have constructed for themselves.
On the other hand, microfiche was, and is, clearly the technology of the future.
Image courtesy Cornell University's Luna Insight collections.
One issue that we wanted to dig into--but there's not very much to work with--is Kelvin's (or possibly just Lem's) treatment of the black woman who appears to the expedition leader. It seems like a very weird, dated handling of race, but, again, not a lot to go on.

The grief and shame that the ocean--perhaps unknowingly--uses as the cues for its manifestations are part of the book's...not charm, perhaps, but definitely impact. Far from being the "Competent Man of Science" that we might expect Kelvin to be from his early actions and generic tropes, we instead see him knocked completely off stride, forced to deal with his emotions surrounding Harey/Rheya. The ambivalence of their relationship--how true a recreation of the real Harey the new one is, how much agency she has, how much she's a new separate being as opposed to the weight, memory, and guilt already in Kelvin's head--overflows the whole novel. Alan brought up the experience of "dead people showing up in your dreams"--it's that kind of read, a strange mix of nostalgia and dread. There's also further ambivalence in that we don't really know what Kelvin feels for her, or, thanks to Lem's (or, to be fair, publishers') prudishness, the exact nature of their relationship. There seems to be a euphemistic reference to Harey orgasming, and they're definitely sleeping in the same bed, but beyond that it's hard to tell.

On a lighter note, we totally compared this to a classic Dr. Who or original Star Trek episode. It could be done with a cheap set, minimal SFX, and still hit hard. Good stuff! Comparisons were also drawn to the Black Mirror episode "Be Right Back" (2013).

The relationship between Kelvin, Harey, and the ocean is an intriguing one. There are ways in which Harey reads as a child, with Kelvin and/or Solaris as the parent figure. But there are also ways in which the humans, including Kelvin, are merely outside particles that the ocean is reacting to--more as an immune system than as a potential communicant. This got us off on several long, fun tangents about communicating with aliens, and what might factor into an intelligence that we would be unable to communicate with.

Good meeting! Classic SF's next selection is Terry Pratchett's "Reaper Man" (1991), May 14th!

1 comment:

  1. Nice analysis and overview of the meeting, Jake.
    Thanks for posting it.