Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

"We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is."

There are moments of scattered brilliance and profound philosophical insight on the nature of mankind (the above quote being a prime example) found in Lem's Solaris, but the large implementation of dense scientific discourse is considerably tedious; undermining the fluidity of the story where many sections are a slog to read through. Lem's style of prose is more befitting of a scientific dissertation full of theories, hypotheses, experiments and analysis rather than an exciting piece of science fiction, since the actual narrative leaves much to be desired. 

I accept Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as consisting of “cognitive estrangement” based around a “novum” (in this case, the planet Solaris) that focuses on the exploration of ideas based within cognitive logic and thus, the novel definitely falls into this genre category. The problem is that the objective scientific perspective greatly overshadows the story substance. Similar to many alien-contact narratives, the novel focuses on the “other” as a reflection of what it means to be human and the flawed human perception to understand an incomprehensible entity: "Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilization without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed" (157).  Kris Kelvin is a psychologist and arrives on the planet of Solaris to continue research on the enigmatic massive ocean that makes up its entire surface and seems to produce a hallucinatory effect on the scientists living at the research station: a phenomena later referred to as “phi-creatures” – apparitions that emulate human physiology and are linked to repressed memories. Dreams, nightmares and the precarious nature of reality are brought to the forefront as Kelvin learns to accept and confront the demons of his past embodied in the sudden appearance of a dead female lover named Rheya. His crumbling psyche and relationship with Rheya is the most intriguing aspect of the novel for me as he deals with the guilt over her death, seeking atonement for his past sins. Unfortunately, Lem’s insistence to provide a history of the ocean’s discovery and extensive analysis regarding its biological structure with plenty of technical terminology concerning “mimoids”, “symmetriads”, “extensors”, “assymmetriads” along with an assortment of other bio-mathematical explanations ends up detracting from the narrative as well as the development of empathetic characters; they end up being portrayed as uninteresting caricatures, mere vessels for Lem to wax his scientific and philosophical ideas. 

Lem is clearly an erudite and sophisticated writer and the postulation of God as  anthropomorphic and “imperfect” is an intriguing hypothesis. The discovery of an omniscient being in the form of a planetary ocean that is a living organism, possessing a conscience will and remains indifferent to human contact is a fascinating concept; an accurate analogy concerning the existence of a possible God who is beyond human comprehension. Solaris is worth reading for its ideas but I just wish more emphasis was placed on the actual narrative.

Read from May 22 to 24, 2011

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