Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem


Whether it be intentional or a fluke in the translating of the original text from Polish to English, it's interesting that Solaris starts with cosmonaut Kelvin being blasted off to rendezvous with the space station orbiting the planet Solaris by being bid farewell with the words 'Have a good trip'. As author Stanislaw Lem wrote Solaris in 1961, the LSD connotation with the word 'trip' wouldn't have been made (though by 1970 on being first translated, it would). The connotation is very fitting, however, because Lem's book can easily be read as a depiction of an acid trip taken whilst reclining on a psychiatrist's couch.

Solaris is the name of a planet discovered in the outer reaches of the universe that is an absolute conundrum to mankind. Despite over a hundred years of extensive studies being made of it, what Solaris exactly is remains an utter mystery. It's mankind's first encounter with a seemingly hyper-intelligent alien life-form but actual contact with it appears impossible.
Lem spends a large chunk of his story describing the planet and the various interpretations of it made since its discovery, each new theory negating another but in itself throwing up yet more unanswerable questions. Essentially, Solaris is a living ocean seemingly in possession of an intelligence far beyond the comprehension of man. From its depths it constructs colossal structures with a logic that cannot be defined by mere mathematics then destroys those same structures for no apparent reason. It's rather like a representation of Chaos theory on an immense scale but then condensed into a single mass, composed of what could be construed as gooey, liquid fractals. Philosophically, Solaris represents the problem of the relation between matter and mind, and between mind and consciousness.

On reaching the space station, Kelvin finds that of the three cosmonaut scientists inhabiting it, one has committed suicide and two are on the verge of mental breakdowns. There are also three 'visitors' on the station who have all attached themselves individually to the scientists. The two scientists left alive keep themselves pretty much locked away in their rooms so Kelvin doesn't actually get to see who they are with (though one might be some kind of dwarf?) but as for the scientist who has killed himself, his 'visitor' - a giant, half naked Negress - is seen walking silently along the station's corridors and also laid out asleep next to his dead body in the cold storage unit.
Before too long Kelvin also has a 'visitor' - his wife. The problem being that his wife is dead, having killed herself after a row with Kelvin back on Earth, an incident that he's always blamed himself for.

Solaris has manifested the most deepest, painful secrets from the memories of the scientists and made them flesh though for what reason cannot be fathomed. Is it a game being played? A form of weaponry? A gift? An attempt at communication? The fact that there are no answers serves to underscore the impossibility of communicating in any way with the planet. All that Kelvin and his fellow cosmonauts are left with are aspects of their subconscious selves in the form of the living, breathing manifestations.
The 'visitors' can neither be destroyed nor ejected from the station out into space, or rather, they can but only to return again the next day. Kelvin's 'wife' feels that something is not quite right but doesn't actually realise she's not for real. Which is a rather mute point because she and the other 'manifestations' to all intent and purpose are very real indeed. They're possessed with emotions the same as anyone and though flesh wounds heal almost instantly, they bleed and they feel pain. They also cannot be separated from their hosts and if need be will tear through steel doors to be with them. For the cosmonauts, there is no escape from them. In the case of the other cosmonauts and their own personal visitors this is a problem of nightmarish proportions suggesting their visitors are their personal demons. In the case of Kelvin's visitor it is also a problem but of a very different sort because Kelvin loves/loved his wife and his wife loves/loved him.

Solaris, then, is a mirror and what it is reflecting is the cosmonauts own inner selves. The exploration of space and the discovery of other life has simply led man back to himself. The desire to understand and communicate with Solaris is ultimately a desire (whether consciously acknowledged or not) to understand and communicate with the self. But if as Lem tells us, actual communication and understanding isn't possible (and in this day and age of the Internet - as in 2016 - where communication and the sharing of information has never been easier, it's an extremely pertinent point) then what next? Where might an answer lay?
For the cosmonauts in Lem's book, for one of them suicide is an answer - though it offers no actual release from his personal demon as (in the form of the giant Negress) it simply lays down alongside his body. For another, the answer is in drunkenness and oblivion - though again, offering no actual release. For another, the fervent throwing of oneself into work is the key - though still no release. As for Kelvin, the answer is in reconciliation with both Solaris and - at the same time - himself, but equally it's in the reconciliation with love.

Needless to say, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris is brilliant.

As we all know, Solaris was turned into a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and again in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh starring George Clooney as Kelvin. Whilst Soderbergh's film (for a Hollywood re-make) is actually very good it is as nothing compared to Tarkovsky's version which is a poetic masterpiece and in my opinion one of the greatest films ever made.
                                                                                                                                                                              John Serpico

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