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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 thrice, the two most well-known being by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. The 1972 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. 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 apparently never saw 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, which is alive and almost certainly thinking (but not as we know it), in addition to all the mysterious things it does, like phosphorising randomly and having things emerge from it.
  • Alliterative Name: Kris Kelvin.
  • Ambiguous Situation: At one point Kelvin wakes up to find a visitor in the shape of Gibarian and they have a conversation. Then he wakes up (maybe...) and hears Harey listening to the recording Gibarian made. The researchers theorize that Solaris gets the information to make the visitors while they sleep, so it is equally possible that Gibarian was a dream, or that he was an actual visitor created by the voice stimulating Kelvin's mind. Afterwards Kelvin believes it was all a dream, but that's also what he thinks when first encountering the real visitor, so he might be wrong.
  • Binary Suns: They're of different colours, hence two different types of days on Solaris and its complicated orbital situation which might have cause the ocean entity to evolve the gravity-changing effect it has. Might. All the characters really know is that the effect exists.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Lem, a fluent English reader, thought the first English translation of the book was this. The 2011 translation is viewed much more favourably, though for legal reasons it's only available as an ebook.
  • 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. The crew studying it goes mad out of what is, at worst, the sea's curiosity about the strange entity that entered the planet's orbit, or by accidental side effects of being so close to it.
  • Door Dumb: In a shining example of how to play a normally comedic trope for drama, when Kris experimentally leaves Harey in the room, he's thunderstruck to see the door bend inwards. He realises that Harey is pulling instead of pushing the (unlocked) door a second before it cracks and she stumbles out, a bloody mess. Then, as he calms her down and is just about to treat her injured hands, the Healing Factor kicks in to further drive the point home - this is not a delicate girl he's dealing with.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: Harey really isn't one for Kris, even if Doppelgänger Gets Same Sentiment at first (until he cottons on to the fact he's not dreaming).
  • Dream Reality Check: 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.
  • 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.
  • Dub Name Change: Snaut and Harey are called Snow and Rheya in the 1970 English translation. The 2011 translation restores their original names.
  • 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.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: "The Little Apocryph", a collection of strange, fringe-y reports from Solaris (among them, the Barton's report, which may be describing the very first instance of the ocean using human memories to create something), proves rather useful to Kris. He generally prefers to spend his time in the library, in part because it has no windows.
  • Fictional Field of Science: "Solaristics", the study of the titular planet. Kelvin describes, at length, the different schools of solaristics and gives a rough outline of its history, ever since Solaris was first discovered, about a hundred years before the story takes place.
  • Genius Loci: The planet. Probably.
  • 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; their wounds heal as you look at them. Snow explains, however, that they're not immortal - all you need to do is get them far enough from the planet... All the samples taken from the solarian ocean so far, Kelvin notes, have turned to dust.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: The ending. Kelvin knows that Rheya will never come back, but still, there's some sort 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: One in the form of a giant baby is described in Barton's report - Barton was a pilot on one of the previous missions and saw things while searching for a lost member of the crew that Gibarian thought had been a test run for the visitors. These included a four-meters long baby testing its movement range.
  • Immune to Drugs: The visitors, as established when Kris slips a sleeping pill into Harey's (the first one) juice. Later on, the second Harey does the same to him so he won't interfere in her annihilation. Kris notices the taste is off, but since she drinks from the same glass, never suspects a thing until it's too late.
  • 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.
  • It Can Think: In the universe of the books there's entire libraries of material trying to prove or disprove this about Solaris. At the end of the story it seems like it can, but not in a way that can be understood by humans. And even that is considered a breakthrough in the field.
  • Jerkass: Sartorius always acts in an unbearably pretentious manner; Kelvin can't stand him. Snow, who's known the guy longer, is noncommital.
  • Last-Name Basis: The members of the research team. When Snow once calls Kelvin on his first name, he feels grateful for it.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: The book is very scarce of unnecessary information. We never learn Harey's last name, or the other crew members' first names or who their visitors are (in Sartorius' case, the visitor is implied to be a child). We never learn why Gibarian's visitor was a large black woman or what drove him to suicide.
  • 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. We never get a proper look at Snow and Sartorius' visitors. There's the crew of Prometheus, the ship that brought Kelvin, but only for a single scene - only one crewman gets a name and a couple of lines, the rest are just back there.
  • 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: Both times, Kris is just lying in bed, in the dark, and Harey suddenly is there.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: When Kris asks Snow if he believes in God, he responds: "Who still believes nowadays..."
  • 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 first Rheya's dress that has buttons, but only for decoration - the dress can't be unbuttoned and has no other fastenings. There are also biological formations out in the ocean, made out of a calcified Solaris-stuff, that mimic the appearance of any number of earthly things, from buildings and trees to people and dogs. These 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.