Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Stanisław Lem – Solaris (1961)

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.”

The photo is sideways because I hate movie tie-in covers. And not because my photography skills suck. Shut up.

Aliens may be central to the ideology and appeal of SF, but they are frequently not all that, well, alien. Frequently life on other planets is reduced to a thinly veiled caricature of some culture the writer feels is suitably exotic, or a broad representation of whatever human characteristic the writer feels like dealing with today. Both of these approaches are as common as all hell and are thoroughly problematic, the former being straight-up racist and the latter robbing the aliens of any real sense of agency and reducing them to simplistic stereotypes. This is especially common in TV and movie SF – think the classic Star Trek rubber forehead alien – for fairly obvious reasons. Before the advent of CGI it was simply not feasible to build truly alien aliens, and it doesn’t hurt that having human actors makes them more immediately easy to relate to. This isn’t to say that Star Trek and others haven’t told some good stories in this mode. Occasionally Trek would try to come up with more unusual aliens, usually resulting in the god-like alien, who had the power to take human form so they could conveniently be portrayed by a human actor, but also had whatever magical powers the plot demanded. In many ways this is an even lazier alternative, exchanging science for the worst kind of deus ex machina magic. Again this isn’t to say that good stories haven’t been told using this mode.
    When it comes down to it, many of the aliens we encounter in SF can fit broadly into either of these categories. Both of them are disappointingly unimaginative and ultimately unscientific. The appearance of humans has been determined by millions of years of evolution, shaped by the circumstances and environments we encountered on this planet. It is simply unrealistic to assume that any intelligent life we might encounter would have been exposed to exactly the same evolutionary pressures, and simply arrogant to assume that our bipedal mammalian structure would be the gold standard in an infinite universe. Then there is the assumption that aliens would think and behave in ways that are broadly analogous and understandable to human beings. An intelligent life form would again be shaped by its own alien culture, however that may have developed. There is no reason to assume that it would share our values; perhaps we would not even be able to understand each other’s cultures or even thought processes and motivations. Very few works of SF acknowledge this; even writers like Iain M. Banks who create aliens with wonderfully imaginative appearances still have them behave in understandable, relatable and ultimately human ways.
   ‘Solaris’, by Polish author Stanisław Lem, is an exception to this rule. It takes as its major themes how utterly unknowable the truly alien is and the difficulty of communication between life forms so radically different they cannot share any common reference points. It is a tribute to the power of Lem’s vision and the importance of his ideas that ‘Solaris’ is one of the few works in translation to find a permanent place in the British/North American canon of science fiction, despite the only English translation available being the notoriously poor 1970 translation from a French translation of the original Polish. (The first direct Polish to English translation was finally released in 2011 as an audiobook and then as an ebook, but as I dislike audiobooks and I do not own a kindle, this review is of the old translation). It has also been adapted into a film three times, which considering the philosophical nature of much of the text and the sheer trippiness of much of the action, is thoroughly baffling.
   The book centres on Dr. Kris Kelvin, a deeply damaged psychiatrist visiting the Solaris Station, a research space station located over the ocean planet of Solaris. The ocean on Solaris is a single living entity that appears to have some form of intelligence, but all attempts to communicate with it have proven futile. He has been sent to investigate the mental health of the crew, but he soon has his own problems to worry about as he is faced with an apparition of Rheya, his dead wife. It turns out the crew have all experience these visitations, and that it is the ocean’s equally futile attempt to communicate with them. One of the scientists eventually develops a technique to destroy the apparitions. This is pretty much all of the plot, but the novel makes up for the thinness of the plot with its psychological depth.
   Much of the novel is taken up by Lem’s description of the Solaris and the various scientific attempts to understand it. This is an example of exposition done incredibly well. Much of the point of the book is how unknowable this alien life is, and this is reflected by the fact that the scientific community, despite decades of research, actually knows very little about Solaris. In a sequence worthy of Douglas Adams, Lem hilariously lampoons self-important scientific writing and the fickle gaze of mainstream media’s scientific interest. Despite Solaris being the only known example of such a life form, the scientists have nonetheless given it a scientific name and classification. Humanity’s history with Solaris is a history of competing scientific theories of philosophical interest but of absolutely no practicality as the organism is so far outside our experience no one has the slightest idea about how to go about testing these theories. There is not even a scientific consensus on whether or not Solaris qualifies as intelligent life.
   More seriously, Lem takes the opportunity to satirise scientific post-colonialism. The quote at the top of the page shrewdly points out the post-colonialist attitude present in much of the way SF deals with aliens – the Trek ideal of humanity spreading justice and democracy across the unenlightened galaxy. Humanity is incapable of dealing with Solaris because people have approached first contact expecting to see something recognisable and ultimately human reflected back at them within the alien. Solaris is so utterly other that many scientists refuse to acknowledge that it counts as intelligent life, not so much because it doesn’t appear intelligent but simply because it doesn’t conform to our narrow ideals of what ‘life’ is.
  Yet by the end of the book we are left with no doubt that Solaris is an intelligent being attempting to communicate. Solaris is prone to bizarre formations that appear and disappear across its surface. Some of the novel’s most poetic (and most resolutely unfilmable) sequences arise from Lem’s description of the mysterious and beautiful formations such as symmetriads and asymmetriads that spontaneously form and collapse across the surface of the ocean. Dr. Kelvin eventually realises that simply being able to accurately copy a symmetriad and drop it in the ocean wouldn’t necessarily allow us to communicate any better with Solaris because we still fundamentally don’t understand what these formations could possibly mean for the ocean. This is reflected in Solaris’ doomed attempts to communicate. While it is able to flawlessly replicate Kelvin’s wife from his image of her in his mind, the replication isn’t able to act as an avatar for the ocean – an obvious solution to the communication problem that a lesser author would have taken. Because of Solaris’ nature as a massive sentient ocean it can no more understand what individual human beings are than we can understand it. So while the imitation Rheya appears to have consciousness and self awareness, as well as all of the original Rheya’s memories from prior to her death, and can communicate as the original to Dr. Kelvin, she cannot know that she is the creation of an utterly alien being or what that being is trying to communicate. Her presence causes Dr. Kelvin such emotional distress he assumes that Solaris is intentionally trying to torture him, before recognising it as an attempt to communicate using the only information it has available to it yet utterly devoid of understanding of what that information means. But it does reveal that Solaris wants to communicate with humanity and is willing to try, perhaps the only thing these two widely different organisms share. 

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