146 of 152 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2002
One note readers should know beforehand is that the version of Solaris available in English is a translation from Polish to French and then translated from the French into English. For some irresponsible and bizarre reason, publishing house Faber and Faber who own the license have not authorized a direct from Polish translation of Solaris. The good news is that despite this the translators from the French have a good sense of literary style and did a fine job of making it readable and enjoyable, though obviously not as accurate a translation as could be.
At first glance Solaris seems hard science fiction. Set in the future after man has explored many systems the main character arrives at the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Lem lets us know several things up front, the planet is suspected of being an intelligent life form and there is a long history of exploration, strange happenings and accidents that have occurred. By the time Kelvin arrives after almost two hundred years of study only a small team is left to record and study the planet.
More than hard science is really at the heart of this novel. There are musings on alien contact and the nature of what is intelligence. Is man really the measure of everything? As events occur, Kelvin the rational scientist succumbs to those most irrational of feelings, love and longing. Ironically, Kelvin, the person sent to investigate the occurrences among the crew is the one who is emotionally effected the most by the visitors that accompany everyone.
The genius of the novel is that the visitors are reflections or copy's of each individual in each person's memory. Every character is touched (or disturbed) on a level much deeper than a more conventional alien contact approach. Few readers will fail to imagine who from their own memories would take the form of their own visitor.
This is one of the most intelligent science fiction novels I've read in a long time. The story ends up not being about science but about what makes us human, what is intelligence and what may separate us from another life form. Moving, well written and highly recommended.
159 of 167 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2003
About 5 minutes into the new movie version of Solaris starring George Clooney I could tell it was going to be along the same lines as 2001:A Space Odyssey. We were going to have long extended shots of spaceships docking and very slow development, and with little or no external explanation from the characters. I was right. This could explain why in a recent internet poll, this most recent version of Solaris was voted the most disliked movie of the last 20 years. I liked the movie ok but I felt there were many more layers to discover underneath its sheen that could only be revealed by the original source. So I sought out this novel that was originally published in 1961 and translated from French to English in 1970.
As the story begins, Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, is headed to the planet Solaris, a planet that he has studied before. He is to dock with the 3-man orbiting space station above the planet. The unique thing about Solaris is that it appears sentient, but not in any way that human beings can understand. At one time it was a pressing issue to make contact with this planet organism but after decades of trying no real success has been achieved and most scientists have given up. Solaris has shown no response to repeated efforts to communicate with it. Kris doesn't expect that anything has changed but he soon finds out that contact has been made.
When he arrives he soon learns that one of the crew members has died and that another has locked himself in his room and refuses to come out and the other speaks in riddles. Then, his dead wife shows up, as real and material as the flesh and blood he remembers. Somehow, Solaris is dragging figures from their memory and making simulations that come to life in the real world. The question is why?
I loved this book. It was one of the best science fiction books that I have ever read and the first book in a long time that I have given 5 stars to. Much as the novel of 2001 gave a better understanding of its own movie experience, so too does this novel. There is much more of a history to the planet in the novel of Solaris than they had time to cover in the movie, which seemed to be trapped into making a romance. The simulated human beings in the novel are much more dangerous because they have super human strength and at one point, Kris' wife rips a locked metal door off its hinges in an effort to get to him. In the book, there was a lot more sense of suspense and menace lurking throughout. The writing in this translation is beautiful, ranging from the philosophical to the purely expositioning, and all points in between, from love to fear to wonder.
One of the things that Lem puts forth in the book is that Mankind does not TRULY want to find any aliens in the universe. He wants to see only reflections of himself because if aliens are really "alien" how could we comprehend them? Therefore, Lem sees the scientists in the book as failures in that they try to comprehend the behavior of Solaris by comparing it to humanity. If something is truly alien, we cannot predict or hypothesize why it acts the way it does. It is alien. I think this was probably the reason why the movie did so bad. Humans want explanation. They want to be able to go, "Solaris is doing that because it is lonely. It has emotions just like me" or something to this effect.
Another theme taken up by the book is the nature of identity. What really makes us a person, a human being? Kris' wife at the start does not know that she is an alien construct. If she thinks she is his wife, does that make her that person, even if she only has the memories? This becomes a mighty struggle in that Kris begins to believe he is being given a second chance to make the relationship work.
Once again, this was a great novel, and should be sought whether you have seen the movie or not. It will be a great experience either way.
118 of 123 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2002
This novel explores the theme of communication. Scientists explore a curious planet, Solaris, whose ocean appears to be an intelligent life-form. Scientists are sent to live on the planet
for purposes of establishing contact.
Contact is elusive however. What is to be the medium of communication? Even without the tool of verbal language,
humans can empathize and communicate to some extent with other mammals. We know that they share common instincts and emotions with us, such as fear, sex drive, hunger, etc. But what about something so "other" as this solarian ocean?
Finally indisputable evidence of contact arrives. Solaris is able to tap into the scientists brains and create exact replicas of significant persons from their past. These replicas look and act in the same way as the people they simulate. The main character Kelvin has before him Rheya, an ex-lover who had committed a suicide which he could have prevented.
This leads to another problem of communication: how to understand the intentions of this action? Has Solaris created the simulacra as a cruel joke, Or did Solaris do this to please the visitor? Is Solaris just doing it as a kind of experiment?
The scientists are tempted to judge the planet according to human behavior, but realize that would be folly.
Humans view others, not just Solaris, but any other species, or even any other human being through the prism of their subjectivity. To reach the other requires an incredible effort of will...it may be impossible. Kelvin is at once in love with the succubus and tormented that "she" is not really Rheya, in spite of the resemblance. The succubus is evertyhing that Rheya was to Kelvin because she is nothing but a collection of his memories. Fine, but who was the real Rheya? Just a scattered collection of a few bits of the real Rheya mixed in with Kelvin's own desires, fantasies, and fears. So this raises the question of how possible it is to go beyond ourself to another human being.
Another problem raised is that of self-communication. Another scientist in the book, snow, makes the point that humans only know about two percent of their thoughts and that Solaris probably knows more about them than they do themselves.
We humans do seem "walled off" and communicability at this stage of our evolution is pretty minimal. Science does seem a valiant attempt to get beyond our fears and fantaises, but as philosophers of science have proven, even our science is fraught with subjectivity. As for understanding ourselves, as Terence Mckenna say, the various schools of psychology sound like medieval hawkers.
Or is this seperateness all an illusion as Heidegger and some mystics claim? The difference between subject and object was reinforced by cartesianism. In that case, how to overcome the symptom of a seperated, isolated ego?
This is not the place to attempt an answer. However, this book will give you a lot to think about. I recommend that it be read at least two times succesively. You will probably miss many of the finer points during your first read. The time spent on careful readings of this book will reward you with many interesting ideas to ponder.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 1997
Where to begin. As the first book I've ever read by Stanislaw Lem, it took me a bit to get into his style. Once I did, I was captivated. I couldn't get enough. Solaris, in brief, is the story of an astronaut (Kris Kelvin) who arrives on a space station orbiting Solaris, a world orbiting a binary star which has been of much interest to the scientific community over the last hundred years. Immediately upon landing, he discovers a friend (Gibarian) who had been the commander of the expedition, has died under mysterious circumstances. The man to deliver this information is the shady Dr. Snow, who babbles incoherently about "visions" before calming down and speaking lucidly. It's not too long before Kris finds himself seeing "visions," and to tell you anything else would be to spoil the story. Aside from a rip-snorting plot, the laborious attention to detail only enhances the story. The words create a perfect picture in your mind, and every person I've talked to who's read this novel has had more or less the same impression of the station. It has a too-large quality, as if there ought to be more than simply three people on it. This only adds to the suspense. The explorations of the planet's surface itself are fascinating scientific descriptions of formations the ocean creates. The grand "floral calyx stage" is incomprehensible to the human mind, yet Lem can describe it in sparkling clarity. The story also contains much human emotion. Kris is dealing with the suicide of his wife, which he blames on himself. Snow is half mad with "visions," and Sartorius, a third scientist, has locked himself in his lab, with only the odd sound escaping. As Kris strives to understand this colossal mind orbiting beneath him on the planet, he is unconsciously attacking his own brain, racking it for clues as to what he is really feeling. Thought provoking and ultimately tragic, Solaris is a classic from beginning to end. The only problem is the double-translation (Polish-French-English) which is at times clunky. This, however, is a minor complaint against a grand piece of literature.
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2000
To characterize Solaris as a "sci-fi" novel is unfair - it is a book of metaphysics, the perils of history, fears, acceptance, and life. As a previous reviewer stated, the limits of science are explored brilliantly, and as these limits appear, so does fear, both of the unknown and the ultimate uncertainty of what is accepted as fact. The book is not anti-science, though, and the reader comes away feeling that just because science has limits, it is science that can bring us to the starkest of encounters with the human mind. Lem does a wonderful job of creating a forlorn and ominous atmosphere aboard the station, and the first encounters of Kris and Rheya left me truly uneasy. In fact, the first half of the book has many elements of a horror novel, but these elements are presented in a technical, sanitary way that was new to this reader. Kris's explorations of the ocean and its meanings drive the plot, yet never does one accept this quest as an important part of the story - it is the canvas on which a man's encounters with the hidden elements of the universe is painted with a passionate restraint. It is a humane book of the very best sort that doesn't shy away from the terrors that consume us all.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2006
Almost all of Lem's science fiction centers around one or two variations of one theme. The theme is "What is intelligence?" and the two variations are "What would robotic life be like?" and "What would a truly alien intelligence be like?" Solaris is in the second category. The basic plot is fundamentally comical: for a century, scientists have been trying to establish if the ocean on Solaris is intelligent and to communicate with it without success. Finally they succeed, but the response is so unexpected and bizarre that they try everything they can to cut off communication again.
I first read this book over 20 years ago and was merely puzzled by it. Re-reading it as an adult, I find it a stunning work.
All of the above you can gather from other reviews here. Let me add some recommendations. If you like Lem, the other author to read is Phillip K. Dick (the subject of a Lem essay called "Genius among the charlatans"). If you like Dick, read Lem.
If you like Solaris, other Lem books with the same theme are "Fiasco", "Eden" and "His Master's Voice". "Fiasco" is the most approachable of the four (including "Solaris") and in many ways the best. "His Master's Voice" is somewhat difficult, and of especial interest as the model for Sagan's "Contact" which is a "popularized" version.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 1997
Humans tend to classify everything they deal with - including the books they read. Clearly, every classification is imperfect. In certain cases this imperfection is especially damaging. Some books, labeled "Espionage", or "Children", or "Science Fiction" - are never read by many people just because they are labeled as such.
Stanislav Lem, clearly, is one of the most striking examples of this problem. Unfortunately, he became a victim of another damaging trend, which is endemic to the North American book market. Once you enter a Science Fiction domain here - the ratio of books to trash becomes much closer to zero, than in any other section.
How can one determine for himself the significance of a book in his life? I read Solaris for the first time when I was 15. There are many other books I read at the same age which I still consider to be very good - and read many-many times since then. Some of them, though I would - probably - never read again, because they ceased to bring anything new to me when I re-read them. I still do love them - but there is no mystery any more - no unanswered questions, no new landscapes around the corner.
There are other books, which you would read again and again - and every time you would find something new in them. "Solaris" is a book like this. Lem never was a SciFi writer - even in his earliest works - and "Solaris" is the most powerful proof of this fact. Space travel and scientific theories are here - but is this book about space travel? Or a scientific theory? What is this book about? I think it is about quite different things. It is conceived and written about the things which are most important for humans: love, shame, human dignity, and compassion.
Solaris is also a philosophical book: it offers only questions, no answers, but the questions asked in "Solaris" are formulated such, that a serious reader has no way to avoid trying to answer them. And the questions are - again - about the things which are of the greatest importance for the humanity: what is consciousness? are we able to overcome our xenophobia? how do we behave if we encounter something which is not hostile, but still - causes great pain to us?
The last two questions are offered in another great book of Lem: "The Invincible", which is - architecturally - much simpler, than Solaris, but - as it is frequently the case with shorter works of really great writers - "The Invincible" strikes the reader with this highly concentrated power, similar to a laser beam, equally disturbing thoughts and emotions - which is exactly what is expected from any work of art.
I only hope that over the years the world will reevaluate Lem's work and he will become as prominent a writer and philosopher as he deserves to be.
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2002
Solaris is a truly remarkable novel. I'm happy Steven Soderbergh has remade Solaris as a film if only to draw a larger audience to Stanislaw Lem's work. While enjoyable viewing, neither Soderbergh's film nor Tarkovsky's 70's Russian version of Solaris fully capture the intelligence, depth and scope of Lem's novel.
This is science-fiction at it's best, boundary exploration. Epistemological and metaphysical inquiry in the guise of fiction. The beauty of Lem's work is in his thorough exploration of profound questions like, "What does it mean to be human?". He works from an oblique angle by plumbing the depths of premises like, "What if a planet were actually a giant alien living being that wished to communicate with humans who landed on it?", and, "How do two completely different life forms actually go about communicating?" He asserts that perhaps man doesn't really want to explore the universe and communicate with other life forms so much as he simply wants to expand "humanity" out to the cosmos indefinitely. A narcissistic solipsism at the level of species. Wow.
Consider this: At one point, the planet Solaris creates a living being from the memory of the protagonist, a psychologist, for the purpose of communicating with him. That the being is his dead wife who committed suicide years earlier and that he feels responsible for not being able to save her only serves to complicate things wonderfully. It brings about even more profound questions. Are we more than just our memory? And if so, when does a being created by another being become truly autonomous? There are only a small number of science-fiction writers capable of tackling this kind of material, and fewer still that do it well.
Lem is Polish with an IQ purportedly in the 180's. Apparently, he doesn't write his novels in his native tongue, but in French and German. His material is then translated into English, and there's the rub that explains only four stars. At times, the translation can be stiff. Think stereo instructions. But the sheer originality and weight of ideas largely overcomes the problem.
This novel stimulated tremendous introspection and reflection in me. IMO that's what the best of the best fiction does. It makes you think and experience a genuine sense of Wonder again.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Be careful what you wish for. Some earlier (pre-2011) reviewers were critical of the 1970 translation and wished for a better one. The result? This 2011 translation. But newer isn't necessarily better. There is an art to translation, which this more streamlined translation sorely lacks. The 1970 translation was actually more communicative of feelings and more readable as a work of literature via its word-choices, the cadence of those words, the pacing of its sentences and the controlled flow of its language; it was more appropriate to imparting a highly literate and somewhat profound tale meant not only to be read but to be contemplated. This newer, more perfunctory and less articulate translation lacks that necessary modicum of formality which distinguishes spoken English from written, the ephemeral from the enduring, a movie script from a novel. I find its syntax occasionally awkward and choppy, and although its stylistic simplification may render it somehow "easier" to read, the now-vapid style makes it less appropriate to the book's thematic complexities and, therefore, less enjoyable to this reader. But I do recognize that mine is a very subjective call, and if this is currently the only way to read this modern SF classic, I would still recommend it because the story warrants it; I'm only thankful I have retained my older version. Therefore, although I have rated this edition 4-stars, readers who do find this translation to their liking (and I suspect many will) would probably choose to rate it one star higher.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 1999
While Lem's Tichy stories and fictional book reviews and introductions are often amazing, and the Pirx stories and the Cyberiad are more fun, this is almost certainly his best. Solaris is the prime example of Lem's oft-visited theme - the difficulty of understanding something alien to us, illuminating the difficulty of understanding ourselves. Kelvin's grappling with his feelings for Rheya, and the "reality" of his situation, and his ultimate acceptance of them (as opposed to the other scientists' refusal), is contrasted with the effort to understand the ocean's "communication." As with most of Lem's novels, several explanations for a situation are put forward, with no definitive conclusion. This device works best in this out of all his novels. In spite of Lem's style, and the double translation, there are a couple of beautiful passages in the book, as well as some satire of scientific explanation. Worth reading many times.