Author: Stanislaw Lem
Translator: Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox
I picked up the book Solaris based on loving the 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky. I also watched the 2002 Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney version and thought it was a complete bore, so I was a bit skeptical going in. My verdict is that the book was excellent, and although I enjoyed the Tarkovsky film more, it’s likely that was because I viewed it first and had some of the key twists already spoiled for me before reading the book.
Solaris tells the story of Kelvin, an astronaut going to study the planet Solaris for the first time in person. The planet is an oceanic planet, with an observation station present that is currently staffed by three other men, Dr. Snow, Dr. Sartarius and Dr. Gibrarian. Upon Kelvin’s arrival, he finds Dr. Snow acting very oddly, suspicious of Kelvin and not believing Kelvin’s simple explanation for his arrival. Dr. Satarius has locked himself in his room, refusing to come out or to let anybody else inside. Dr. Gibrarian had killed himself hours before Kelvin’s arrival.
As Kelvin tries to figure out what is going on, he sees an African woman walking around the station, as well Rheya, the love of his life who killed herself years earlier. Rheya has all of the memories and personality that the woman he loved had prior to her death, and Kelvin must decide if he trusts this woman, the men on the ship, or his own mind before deciding how to proceed. The story is fascinating, and Kelvin is a sympathetic figure that is the focal point of the entire story.
This book is closer to the “hard science” fiction side of things than one would guess based on the plot description above. Kelvin often visits the station library to review records of previous visitors to Solaris, as well as journals by Earth scientists who have speculated on the only life present on Solaris, the giant ocean of water. However, if you are looking for firm answers and explanations of everything present in this book, you will be disappointed.
So much of what I loved about Tarkovsky’s film and Lem’s book is the absence of easy answers in a situation so complex. The alien consciousness present on Solaris is so far removed from anything human that we can only speculate along with the main characters as to why things happen, or how. In addition, the fact that the apparitions appear to be tied to individual’s deepest desires or darkest secrets results in Kelvin (and the reader) never getting much in the ways of answers to other character’s visitors.
Solaris was a quick read, just over 200 pages. Aside from one particularly long visit to a library, and another chapter of Kelvin’s dreams, this was a book I could have breezed through in one long setting. I don’t know if I’d recommend watching Tarkvsky’s film or reading Lem’s book first, as I enjoyed visualizing the characters and setting as they were in that film, and the two versions are different enough that one doesn’t spoil everything in the other.
**Note, I read the Kilmartin/Cox translation, which changed the names of a few characters to more English sounding words**