Monday, October 22, 2012

100 Books #99 - Stanislaw Lem's SOLARIS

I was absolutely charmed by my first Stanislaw Lem book, The Cyberiad, but this one, this one is very different. I am haunted by it, as I am by J.G. Ballard's books -- but even more so.

Just pages into Solaris, I could see why the amazing Andrei Tarkovsky picked on it to adapt into a film.* Not because its plot or characters are demanding to make the leap to the big screen, but because its setting, as observed by Kris Kelvin, is sense-swampingly cinematic:

" though sucked upwards, the cloud-mass lifted; I was gliding, half in light, half in shadow, the capsule revolving upon its own vertical axis..."

"...the sun's orbit, which had so far encircled me, shifted unexpectedly, and the incandescent disc appeared now to the right, now to the left, seeming to dance on the planet's horizon. I was swinging like a giant pendulum while the plaenet, its surface wrinkled with purplish-blue and black furrows, rose up in front of me like a wall."

And that's just the English translation. Goodness knows what the appeal of the original Polish to the mind's eye would be. I'm guessing marvelous, because Polish seems marvelous. But so, who wouldn't want to try to bring such images (and these aren't even the most vivid or colorful. There's a freaking literary light show towards the end!) to the actual eye, hmm?

Alas, the films, both Tarkovsky's glorious one and Stephen Soderberg's somewhat less-so one, are more interested in Kelvin and the strange clone/doppelganger/thing of his wife that shows up just as other figures, imaginary/archetypal or real, show up in the lives of the others on the station studying the planet Solaris, than in Solaris itself. This is not true of the book.

Solaris is alive, or at least its surface is, taken up by one vast organism that defies biological, chemical, and physical science but exists anyway. It delights in creating vast structures and shapes from its own imagination and, ominously, in creating slightly off copies of human objects. And memories? Well, how else do you think these imperfect copies of people and creatures who are haunting the researchers get there?

But get this. Oh, get this. As Kelvin reads a prior researcher's account of his observations on Solaris, we get a sense of vast weirdness that I have only ever encountered in one book (Greg Bear's Blood Music), though perhaps there are echoes of this in Alastair Reynolds' Pattern Jugglers as well (though they are many organisms on many water-covered planets, not one vast one that only sort of seems like an ocean. Anyway, check this description of one of many weird types of oceanic/organic formations the researchers call "Extensors" doing their weird things under the light of the planet's two suns (a red one and a blue one):
"It must be understood that the 'extensors' are formations that dwarf the Grand  Canyon, that they are produced in a substance which externally resembles a yeasty colloid (during this fantastic 'fermentation' the yeast sets into festoons of starched open-work lace; some experts refer to 'ossified tumors'), and that deeper down the substance becomes increasingly resistant, like a tensed muscle which fifty feet below the surface is as hard as rock but retains its flexibility. The 'extensor' appears to be an independent creation, stretching for miles between membranous walls swollen with 'ossified growths' like some colossal python which after swallowing a mountain is sluggishly digesting the meal, while a slow shudder occasionally ripples along its creeping body."
It goes on at greater length, but that bit should be enough to convey the awesome creepiness of the planet Solaris. I had chills. Even before we learn that when seen up close this structure is "bewilderingly alive with movement." Its hard not to imagine the continent-spanning waves of sentient individual cells that engulf North America in Blood Music -- but Solaris came first, of course.

And Solaris, Solaris is real science fiction. As in there is lots of science, the way science is actually conducted. And no, I'm not talking about crazy experiments, though there are some of those. I'm talking about all of the literature reviews our narrator conducts in the course of telling  his story (the big block quote above comes from a journal article). As any former or current graduate student/coolie can tell you, a vastly greater amount of a working scientist's time is so spent than anyone who is not one or hasn't been one would suspect -- especially in a well-established discipline, which, at the time of the events of this novel "Solarist studies" is. There are decades of theories, counter-theories, grant proposals, experimental "results", project budgets and other documentary minutiae to be gone through if one is going even try to grasp the immensity of the planet/life form's mystery. It's a true testament to Lem's storytelling abilities that this is not at all tedious. I, for one, kind of felt myself tapping my foot impatiently through all of the Kelvin/Pseudo-Mrs. Kelvin scenes, waiting to learn more about the planet.** Or, at least, about what it probably wasn't.

"The existence of the thinking colossus was bound to go on haunting men's minds."


*I'm trying not to gush too much about this film -- and it is not a perfect film; feel free to fast forward through its infamously dull "city of the future" scene, in which characters are sitting in a car and traveling a seemingly endless expanse of then-contemporary Tokyo, for instance; it's there because Tarkovsky was damned lucky to get to leave the Soviet Union to go get that footage, and he had to justify the trip, by not-god -- but if you haven't seen it or aren't willing to give it a chance, I... I just don't know what to say. It's an amazing and subtle film, and features one of my very favorite actors, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, in a strong supporting role. It concerns itself more with the relationship between Kelvin and his dead wife than with all of the real science fiction, which now that I've read the novel I find a bit of a cheat, but my jaw still just drops at the mere thought of this film.

**Again, how much of this is due to having enjoyed (Tarkovsky) and endured (Soderberg) two film adaptations that were all Rheya/Hari (for reasons I do not grasp, Kelvin's wife is named Hari in the original Polish novel and the Tarkovsky film, and Rheya in the English translation and Soderberg's film), all the time, I cannot say. And how much of that is due to Natascha McElhone, whose performance in Soderberg's version I loathed, well, maybe that I can say, because I heard every line of Rheya's dialogue in the book in her whiny/whispy voice until I wanted to find a way to claw out that part of the brain that is the mind's ear.


  1. I had no idea that anybody outside my immediate family & crazy Eastern Europeans read Lem for fun! or watched Tarkovsky for fun! Win and win.

    I found Solaris dull compared to The Cyberiad (oh, how I love that book - I had almost forgotten!) and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, but maybe I should give it a reread...

    1. I haven't read Memoirs yet but have obtained it. Yes, Cyberiad is hard to match for charm and sheer bizarre enjoyment, but it didn't *completely blow my mind* like Solaris did.


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