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Solaris Paperback – November 20, 2002
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A classic work of science fiction by renowned Polish novelist and satirist Stanislaw Lem
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
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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.
First, I have not read this book (but I saw the movie), but recently I came across a few essays by Lem and about Lem on the cyberiad site run by his relatives.
He apparently was not thrilled about the film adaptation and really sort of dislikes the book itself. That may be just an author's typical fussiness.
But here's something else. Lem himself hates this translation; he has been pestering the publisher (who owns the copyright) for some time to commission another translation of it. He believes it is seriously flawed.
I don't know Polish, so I cannot comment. Other interviews record Lem as being content with English translations of most of his other works, but the bad translation of Solaris really gnaws at him. ALthough the publication date here for the paperback is 2002, in fact the translation (I seem to recall) dates back to the 1950's. And the publishing house that owns the copyright refuses to commission another translation.
Maybe this is just authorial fussiness. Maybe the translation isn't that horrible. But I'd be very careful about touching a translation that the author hates.
2013 UPDATE: I wrote this review in 2004 about the translation by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. fortunately, there is a better translation published in 2011. The new translation is also ridiculously cheap, so there is no good reason to read the older translations. See Solaris
The book had potential to be a good psychological horror, but never followed through. It builds up to the "ghost", but then just leaves it hanging there in your face until the main character has reiterated his feelings a million times and then it disappears.
It was not worth it.