Book Talk: 'Solaris' by Stanislaw Lem - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Solaris' by Stanislaw Lem

Alexander Wallace explores Solaris.
One of the great strengths of the science fiction genre is its ability to imagine life so utterly unlike humanity; John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to 1971, instructed his writers to “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man or better than a man, but not like a man” (a sentiment often snarkily responded to with “a woman?” but I digress). More than any genre, it is one that preoccupies itself with what something completely and utterly alien to us could be. Today, we shall be discussing one of the best examples thereof, in my opinion: Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris, originally written in Polish.

Your protagonist, Kris Kelvin, arrives aboard a research station orbiting the planet Solaris. The crew there is dedicated to studying the planet, which is inhabited, if that is the correct term, by what appears to be a sentient ocean. This is complicated by the fact that the head of the expedition has died under mysterious circumstances, and the other members of the crew are not exactly forthcoming on the subject.

The book is about human rationality, and our species’ (or perhaps, better stated, our scientists’) firm belief in a universe that can, with sufficient effort, be understood by human beings. Solaris is a planet that seems intent (if such a word can be used) on throwing a wrench into that lofty idea. It is a book that is very eerie, sometimes very abstract, and frankly I think it could be viewed as a horror novel. There’s a sense of everything being just … off that Lem captures so very well; there are no jump scares, but rather a sense of disorientation from situations that just have no context on this planet.

Lem was known for his distaste of most American science fiction, but in all honesty Solaris reads like the best of the Golden Age of the genre in the anglosphere. Maybe it’s the translation, but it feels like it could have been published by John W. Campbell without many edits to it. This includes the novel’s greatest sin of occasionally bombarding you with massive piles of information that can lead you to glaze over if you are not versed in the science like Lem is. It doesn’t ruin the book, but it does break the pacing.

There is a human core here that is hands-down the best part of the novel, one that is lacking in so many lesser works of science fiction. It is frustrating in that it is so integral to the plot that I am unwilling to spoil it, but it makes it clear to me that Lem is willing to ask some bold questions, even by the standards of today.

Solaris is an odd book and sometimes a confusing book. Nevertheless, it has, in translation (itself no mean feat) become a classic of the genre in the Anglosphere, something achieved only by Jules Verne and perhaps Karel Čapek before the coming of translated Chinese science fiction. It is a great book, a bizarre one, and one very much worth reading.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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