Solaris (novel)

Solaris is a Polish science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem (1921-2006), published in Warsaw in 1961 and is his best known work in English translation. While the narration suggests that humans study the planet, the opposite seems to be the case, where the titular alien planet, Solaris, examines the secret and often guilty thoughts of human beings. These secrets and thoughts are given physical form on the space station which orbits the planet. The novel is pervaded by a powerful and moving poetic sense of remoteness and loneliness.

It was adapted into a Russian film in 1972 by director Andrei Tarkovsky, and an American film in 2002. There is also an opera of the same title by German composer Michael Obst.

Plot summary

The novel is about the ultimately futile attempt to communicate with an alien life-form on a distant planet. The planet, called Solaris, is covered with a so-called "ocean" that seems to really be a single organism covering the entire surface. The ocean shows signs of a vast but strange intelligence, which can create physical phenomena in a way that science has difficulty explaining. The alien mind of Solaris is so inconceivably different from human consciousness that all attempts at communication are doomed (the "alienness" of aliens was one of Lem's favourite themes; he was scornful about portrayals of aliens as humanoid).

The novel begins with the arrival of the protagonist, Kris Kelvin, at a scientific research station hovering above the surface of Solaris. Research has been ongoing for years, but scientists have been unable to do more than observe the highly complex phenomena on the surface of the ocean, all the while classifying them into an elaborate nomenclature without understanding what they actually mean. When the protagonist and his colleagues become more aggressive in trying to force contact with Solaris, the experiment becomes psychologically traumatic for the researchers themselves. The ocean's response, such as it is, lays bare their own personalities, while revealing nothing of the ocean's. To the extent that the ocean's actions can be understood, the ocean begins experimenting with the researchers' minds by confronting them with their most painful and repressed thoughts and memories through the materialization of complex human constructs: the protagonist is confronted with memories of his deceased lover and his guilt over her suicide. What torments the other researchers is only hinted at (as they are careful to conceal it) but it appears to be much worse.

Andrei Tarkovsky's film follows the novel loosely, emphasizing human relationships over Lem's theories on exobiology, and devoting a substantial amount of time to Kelvin's life on Earth before his trip to Solaris. In 2002, Steven Soderbergh made a film adaptation of Solaris which focuses on the relationship between Kelvin and his deceased wife to the exclusion of many of Lem's other themes.


There are three main characters in Solaris: Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who recently came from earth to study Solaris. Later, we discover that he was married to Rheya (Harey in the original Polish), who subsequently committed suicide when Kelvin left her. She becomes his visitor, and herself a main character of the story. The first person Kelvin meets on the station is Snow (Snaut in the original Polish). We are never informed of the identity of Snow's visitor. The last inhabitant of the station is Sartorius. By far the most reclusive member of the crew, Sartorius appears rarely. He is constantly suspicious of the other crew members. Like Snow, we are never informed of the identity of his visitor. There are a few secondary characters. One is Gibarian. He was Kelvin's teacher before either came to Solaris. He is dead at the beginning of the book; the 'giant Negress' who is his visitor appears twice to Kelvin, once in the hallway after he first arrives, and again when he examines Gibarian's body. Another is Andre Berton.

Rheya is Kelvin's deceased wife, who died from a lethal injection after a fight with Kelvin. She appears as his visitor. The first Rheya who appears is lured by Kelvin into a shuttle due to his overwhelming fear and then the shuttle is ejected into the space. Her fate is not known, but when Snow suggests they hail the shuttle to discover her fate, Kelvin objects. Rheya reappears rather soon, the same as at first and unaware of the event with the shuttle. However, the "second" Harey (or as Lem/Kelvin rephrased "repeated Rheya") becomes aware of her transient nature, and becomes haunted by the fact that she is a tool employed by Solaris to some unknown effect on Kelvin. After hearing a tape recording by Gibarian and discovering her true nature, she attempts to kill herself by drinking liquid oxygen. She fails, because her new Solaris-created body is built of unknown matter and is of unknown structure. She is eventually killed by Snow, at her request, using a device developed by Sartorius meant to disrupt the sub-atomic structures of the constructs (and prevent them from reappearing).

See also

Editions in English

An English language translation of the French language translation (therefore a dual translation) has gone through a number of reprints:

  • ISBN 0-8027-5526-7 (1970)
  • ISBN 0-15-683750-1 (1987)
  • ISBN 0-15-602760-7 (2002)
  • ISBN 0-571-21972-1 (2003)

External links

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