BOOK REVIEW – STANISLAW LEM – SOLARIS (1961).
Famous Polish Science fiction novel, twice filmed, in Russia in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky, and in 2002 by Stephen Soderbergh.
A psychiatrist, Dr. Chris Kelvin, is sent to a space station, orbiting and studying the planet Solaris, where the cosmonaut scientists appear to have gone insane. Kelvin arrives after a journey taking many years, to find the team being very reclusive, and paranoid. There also seems to be evidence of people on the base who should not actually be there, (by permission or possibility).
Receiving warnings that he will soon see visitors of his own, Kelvin falls asleep and Rheya, his ex-wife, who he knows to have committed suicide many years before, soon visits him. She is not a ghost, but an idealized construct of his memories of her created from within his subconscious mind by the planet itself. Kelvin soon learns that similar visitations have affected the other men on Solaris, and created the neurosis exhibited by each. The planet is able to fathom their minds and confront the men with themselves, without giving anything away of itself at all. It remains utterly alien throughout the book. An earlier expedition had seen the planet’s ocean surface, (possibly a sentient holistic entity that has wrapped around its surface), forming shapes that resemble infant children (many miles long), and the shape of towns and buildings, etc. These are seen as experiments in mimicking human people and property, but each construct dissolves into the ocean again within months.
After a grief reunion with his ex-wife, Kelvin kills her by launching her out into space in an escape pod, but she is simply reconstructed again from his mind and returned the next night, a repressed memory that cannot stop haunting him.
As the rest of the Solaris team prepare to bombard the planet with X-rays (able to weaken and even destroy the entities), Chris begins to yearn for a possible fresh start with Rheya, but the crew test their X-ray transmitter on her and she vanishes, supposedly forever.
Preparing for evacuation, Chris takes a small spaceship down to Solaris, promising only to take a final look there, but he settles on a small island forming and possibly already, melting) in the ocean, hoping that it will allow him a reunion with Rheya. The book ends there.
The films both over-emphasise the love story tragedy, which is undoubtedly still a part of the book, though Lem focused more on the alien being truly inexplicable. Both films show much of the life of Kelvin on Earth, while this is barely referred to in the film. The Russian film shows a bleak existential despair settling on Kelvin, and finishes with him reunited not with Rheya, but with his estranged father in her absence (his father is barely mentioned in the book). The Soderbergh version has Kelvin reunite with his wife, or at least given the satisfying illusion of such. Neither variation was satisfactory to Lem.
Both films are excellent, but the book remains the definitive version of a quite unsettling and highly intelligent novel.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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