It is not often I stray into the world of science fiction, but my oldest son challenged me with a classic text as a Christmas present. It was a pleasant stray.
Stanislaw Lem was a Polish writer, and Solaris, published in 1961, is considered by many (and I’m in no position to argue) a classic of science fiction.
The novel is centered around psychologist Kris Kelvin, an expert on the planet Solaris, who visits there to study the ocean which covers the planet. He arrives to find one of his colleagues has just killed himself, the remaining two are acting strangely, and unexpected visitors are arriving. The visitors, it turns out, are created from their memories. In Kelvin’s case, he suddenly finds himself spending time with his wife, who killed herself after they argued nearly 20 years before.
But where do these creatures come from? It is interesting to consider that you could switch their appearance to a devilish influence and you have a horror novel. Instead, Kelvin and the others think the Solaris ocean is creating them. The ocean is a living being, and they attempt to communicate with it. Are these resurrected beings meant to curse them? Are they gifts from the ocean?
Their attempts at communication are constantly frustrated, and from what others say about the book, Lem is commenting on inability of humans to communicate with non-humans. His philosophical forays lend support to this, but like much good science fiction I’ve read, the real skill is in looking at humanity from a new perspective.
What do these appearances say about us as people? The creatures are human in nearly every respect, but Kelvin can tell that this is not his wife. Even if we can replicate the cells of our body, will we create the same person? Most interesting (but not fully explored) is the creature’s growing awareness of its own existence. This creature, resembling his wife, Rheya, knows she is not who she thinks she is. She has no past, yet she has a memory. How and why did she appear suddenly on the space station? We see her struggle with her own identity, similar to how a human would, but for different reasons.
It is in the raising of these questions, without attempting to answer them all, that Lem’s novel works so well. He uses a science fiction premise to examine one of our most perplexing creatures — us.