Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

1961: Solaris (Lem, Stanislaw)

Emotional camouflage contrasts planetary revelations (4/5)
From April 19, 2010

This is the first Lem novel I've read, but I unfortunately own the movie tie-in with a smooching George Clooney plastered on the cover. Repressing the irksome rays of lust emitting from the cover, I dove into a novel which I had read to be much loved by science fiction enthusiasts. In lieu of Clooney cover, I place the more appreciable 1976 Berkley edition.

Solaris is one of those atmospheric novels which doesn't apply its readership to the mainstream. It's heavy with descriptive paragraphs and notational dialogue than it is on action sequences and spoken revelations. It's such a novel where the reader must pick up the nuances of the words and relationships to truly grasp the impact of the entire novel. If you're not sure what I mean, consider two unconnected movies and whether you can relate to them one way or another through their use of ambiance: Lost in Translation and Napoleon Dynamite. Both are sparse on dialogue but heavy on use of atmosphere to bring the reader/watcher in tune with the characters. In the same line, Solaris is a novel of nebulous activity where characters are at the mercy of the greater scheme of things.

Rear cover synopsis:
"When psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the coean that covers its surface, he finds himself confronting a painful memory embodied in the physical likeness of a past lover. Kelvin learns that he is not alone in this, and that other crews examining the planet are plagued with their own repressed and newly real memories. Could it be, as Solaris scientists speculate, that the ocean may be a massive neural center creating these memories, for a reason no one can identify?"

Lem's detailed descriptions of the planetary formations of Solaris are breathtaking and imaginative but occasionally drag on with imagery which is difficult to come to terms with in explanations of shape, size or even color. His views of environmental consciousness and its effect on human manipulation is one of unique insight considering its date of release- 1961. Thereafter, a number of novels have taken a similar approach in planetary awareness and living oceans: Asimov's 1989 Nemesis and Reynolds' 2000 Revelation Space among the two. The relationship of experimentation borders on diabolical--humans bombard the ocean with x-ray beams while the same offers up so-called human-like hallucinations to the scientists. The experimental effect to the ocean remains unknown to the crew but the Solaris-to-human emotional mirage has forever changed them with the new lifelike hallucinations of once known companions.

It's quite a gripping look at how a planet struggles to understand what it is to be human while the humans themselves face their own monsters. However, the occasional chapter is full of lengthy descriptions which siphon away the rich ambiance already established. The gaze outward to the planet isn't as fulfilling as the gaze inward into the minds of Solaris and Man. The strength in the novel lies internally, where you must finger through the gradual enlightening shades of emotional camouflage (as contradictory as that may sound, Lem writes it like no other).

Though not as popular as Solaris, I've managed to find two additional copies of Lem's work at a second-hand library book sale here in Bangkok: The Cyberiad (1965) and The Star Diaries (1971). I'm eager to find more, but the second-hand shelves don't abide by my suggestions.

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