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Literature / Solaris

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Solaris is an 1961 Science Fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem. The main theme is whether humans are able to communicate with a truly alien (but benign) intelligence, or would it prove too much for the fragile human psyche.

The title refers to a distant planet, which is covered with an ocean of plasma. More than a century before the events of the novel, Earth scientists discovered that the entire ocean is one living, intelligent organism; however, every attempt to establish communication with it was futile.

At the beginning of the novel, psychologist Kris Kelvin (the narrator of the story) arrives to Station Solaris, a scientific research station hovering near the surface of the planet. He discovers that the leader of the research team, Gibarian killed himself, and the other two members, Snow (Snaut in Polish) and Sartorius are acting strangely. He soon realizes why, when a Doppelgänger of his dead wife, Rheya (Harey in Polish) appears in his room. Turns out, that the ocean sent such replicas (called "visitors") to every member of the team, for unknown reasons. Those "visitors" presumably represent their greatest failures; Rheya killed herself when Kelvin left her, and he still feels guilty about that. Kelvin first lures the Rheya visitor in a shuttle, and launches it into outer space, but she soon reappears, with no memory of the incident. A conflict appears between the members of the team; Kelvin wants to live with Rheya, while Snow and Sartorius want to get rid of the visitors for good.


The novel was adapted to film twice, by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. The first film is considered a classic. Lem disliked both versions, claiming that they focus on the humans too much, and miss the actual theme of his novel.There also exists a 1968 TV film by Boris Nirenburg. It never left Russia, its home country. Despite lacking a huge part of the final chapter (which was back then cut out of all Russian translations) it still manages to be, arguably, more faithful than the 1972 and the 2002 movies. However, it is not well known and Lem has apparently never seen it.

The book was also adapted several times for theater and even as an opera - not many SF works can claim that.


Solaris contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Alien Geometries: The symmetrids and asymmetrids are giant formations consisting of a bizarre keratin-like substance. They appear from the black ocean, exist for a period of time, and then collapse back into the sea. Symmetrids are perfectly symmetrical down to the molecule, and asymmetrids are chaotic, unstable and only exist for a fraction of the time of the former. They're described as performing some sort of computer-like calculation process within their own machine-like bio-structure, but towards no understandable or observable purpose.
  • Alien Sea: The ocean.
  • Alliterative Name: Kris Kelvin.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Though it causes distress to the human characters, the ocean is not actively malevolent. The reasons for its actions are completely unknowable.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Downplayed. Humanity is doing fine and expanding pretty well without going mad, thanks, but the sea of Solaris itself is a truly alien and godlike entity that is obviously alive and at least does a very good imitation of sentience, one no human can comprehend as it drives the crew studying it mad out of what is at worst curiosity about the strange entity that entered the planet's orbit or by accidental side effects of being so close to it.
  • Driven to Suicide: Gibarian and the original Rheya. The second replica of Rheya also tries to kill herself, by drinking liquid oxygen, when she learns what she is, but she survives due to her healing factor. Eventually, Sartorius and Snow destroy her with a device that disrupts her sub-atomic structure at her request.
  • Eldritch Abomination: One possible interpretation of the planet. In a true Lovecraftian fashion, we can't know if it is malicious or simply so alien in its workings that it becomes terrifying. It's sentient, but its thoughts and motives are beyond comprehension, as are its physics: somehow, it can affect the workings of the universe on an astronomical scale, but no one knows how. And the planet itself, in turn, seems to have problems understanding humanity. At the time of the novel, humanity has been studying Solaris for a century with barely any progress, and many attempts to communicate directly with Solaris have... unpleasant results.
  • Expospeak: The "Kelvin reads a book" scenes.
  • Fictional Field of Science: "Solaristics", the study of the titular planet. Kelvin even gives a description of the different theories within solaristics.
  • Genius Loci: The planet.
  • God Is Inept: At the end, Kelvin theorizes about a god "whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror." Snow suggests that the ocean might be the first phase of such a god.
  • Healing Factor: The visitors have it; it's impossible to kill them, their wounds heal in moments.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: The ending. Kelvin knows that Rheya will never come back, but still, there's some short of hope beyond hope in him. "I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained."
  • Humanoid Abomination: Of a sort, in the form of a giant baby.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: The ocean. What it does is frequently hard to describe, and why it does these things is wholly beyond anyone's grasp — the scientists studying it can't even figure out whether or not it's trying to communicate with them. At least a third of the book consists entirely of the protagonist recounting various scientific papers hypothesizing about how and why Solaris works — his point being that they are all nothing but blind guesses with equal chances of being true or untrue, because none of the available facts permit humans to come to any rational understanding of it.
  • Jerkass: Sartorius always acts in an unbearably pretentious manner; neither Snow nor Kelvin can stand him.
  • Last-Name Basis: The members of the research team. When Snow once calls Kelvin on his first name, he feels grateful for it.
  • Living Memory: Rheya's replica.
  • Minimalist Cast: The only characters in the novel are Kelvin, Snow, Sartorius and Rheya... and she isn't a real person. Though she appears twice; does that count as two characters? Kelvin also briefly sees Gibarian's visitor, a large black woman.
  • My Greatest Failure: Kelvin regards his failure to stop Rheya's suicide as this; that's why she appears for him. Probably.
  • No Name Given: The first names of Snow and Sartorius, the last name of Rheya.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: How the visitors appear.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: When Kris asks Snow if he believes in God, he responds: "Who still believes nowadays..."
  • Pinch Me: When Kelvin first sees Rheya, he thinks he's dreaming. When he wants it to end, he stabs his leg with a spindle. But it's not a dream.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Why did the ocean send the visitors? And why did it stop? Was it a test? Was it torture? Was it a misguided attempt at a good deed? The point of the novel is that we can never know.
  • Starfish Aliens:
    • An entire ocean of sentient plasma.
    • Despite looking human, the visitors might also qualify, since their subatomic structure is completely alien.
  • Super Strength: The visitors have it, as Kelvin soon learns.
  • Uncanny Valley:
    • invoked The visitors definitely count, such as the protagonist's girlfriend's dress having buttons but lacking any seams or even a way for it to be put on or removed. There are also biological formations out in the ocean, made out of a calcified substance, that mimic the appearance of any number of things from human-looking buildings and trees to people and dogs. They don't last long and are eventually reabsorbed into the "water."
    • The description of the giant baby, which does not act in any way baby-like, but instead systematically tests out its body, to the horror of the witness.
  • Undead Barefooter: The visitors (both Rheya and an unidentified black woman) always appear barefoot, and their feet aren't calloused; this is one of the indications that they are not actually human. An unusual example, since they are not literally undead, but are replicas of deceased people.


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