Published in Poland in 1961, this novel is a very interesting work from a Sci-Fi perspective. The book deals with the darkness of the human psyche, communication difficulties and the unknowability of alien life forms.
Narrated in the first person, the novel begins as a seemingly straightforward space adventure – with a scientist called Kelvin leaving a space ship in a small capsule. His mission is to join an established scientific expedition aboard a space station in orbit around the mysterious planet Solaris. The planet is mainly occupied by a huge ocean that appears to have a life of its own.
What I liked about the book
I liked the tone of menace and suspense, established at the very beginning when the arriving scientist is greeted by the space station’s automatic reception-drill, rather than by his fellow scientists, and maintained throughout the book to the very end.
The claustrophobic atmosphere on a space station seems well recreated (or so I imagine – never having experienced it myself) and the mysterious female character who comes to haunt Kelvin is depicted sensitively and convincingly – this is no mindless zombie but a ‘real’ person with a genuine personality of her own.
The frustrations of dealing with an alien life form that may or may not be sentient, and who resists all efforts to make contact, are well described – perhaps too well.
The solar system in which the planet is situated is also very alien, with two suns creating two different kinds of daylight, and there are fantastic descriptions of the light effects and equally wonderful descriptions of the strange formations produced by the incredible ocean.
What I didn’t like about the book
The edition I read was the Kilmartin and Cox translation, which I believe Stanislaw himself was disappointed with. Translated from Polish into French and then again into English, this version of the novel may have lost something in translation. At times I found the sentences convoluted, the language stilted and there were one or two obvious mistakes.
More importantly, the book seemed overlong. I make allowances for the fact Stanislaw must have written it during the 1950s and comes from an Eastern European tradition, but the novel would have made a better novella. Some of the descriptions are too long-winded for modern tastes and are, in any case, unnecessary for the story. For example, there was a tortuous detailed account of the various scientific factions who had argued over the planet – related in a manner more reminiscent of an academic essay than of a novel. And the evocative descriptions of the incredible formations created by the ocean were interesting, but went on for many pages longer than they needed to.
What I learnt from this book
- The best sci-fi increases our understanding of humanity (or, even better, challenges our understanding of humanity).
- The worst monsters are the ones we create from our own imagination. Stanislaw did not fully reveal the apparitions haunting the other two scientists on the space station. He just hinted at their nature.
- Suspense was an important factor in this book and was used expertly as a tool to sustain narrative interest.
- If you have something interesting to say, you don’t have to spend too long saying it. A few well-chosen sentences can work better than several interminable paragraphs.
Stanislaw Lem has written an interesting commentary on his own book, Solaris, with the benefit of several decades of hindsight.
You can read it on Stanislaw Lem’s web site.
And here is a wonderful snippet, giving an insight into his writing process, a quote taken from his website
When I led Kelvin to the Solaris station and made him see the frightened, drunken Snaut, I did not know myself what made him so anxious. I had no idea why …. but soon I was to find out, because I kept on writing…
In other words, he started with that scene in his head, started writing and the story followed.
You can buy the book on Amazon.