SOLARIS – Stanisław Lem (1961)

Solaris Lem cover first editionAt the beginnings of my forays into science fiction, it quickly became clear Solaris was one of the key texts, and so a physical copy of the book has been on my shelves for years. There were two reasons I didn’t take it out sooner. The main thing was me having the wrong idea of what it was about. I’m not sure why, but I thought the story focused on a crew slowly growing mad, and I’d mentally labeled it something like ‘psychological horror in space’, a genre I’m not that interested in. The other reason was Steven Soderbergh’s adaption: I’d seen it in a movie theater when it came out back in 2002, and while I don’t remember any other thing about it, at the time my reaction was lukewarm at best.

It was only after a conversation in the comments to my review of Asimov’s The Gods Themselves that I realized I had the wrong idea about the book. That conversation was with Polish native Ola G, and it turns out she wrote two excellent pointers about Stanisław Lem, here and here – do click on those if you want an accessible yet fairly thorough overview of Lem. On the strength of Solaris and Ola’s posts, I have added Fiasco, The Invincible and The Cyberiad to my TBR.

Before I look a bit closer at the novel itself, a few notes on the translation. The English translation from 1970 by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox was based on a French version. Not ideal, and Lem wasn’t satisfied with the result either. Sadly, it is the only available English version in print, even though Bill Johnston completed a direct translation from the original Polish in 2011 – a version Lem’s wife and son thought “captured the spirit of the original.” Johnston’s translation was released as an audio book and a Kindle edition, but a paper edition is stuck in legal limbo. I can’t say the prose was bad, but some sections felt a bit dry & lifeless, and I’m chalking that up to Cox & Kilmartin. Just to be clear: all this is no reason to not read this book – it is a deserved classic – but should you have the option: go for the Johnston version.

As in lots of Stanisław Lem’s stories, an important theme of Solaris is “the complete failure of human beings to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence”. I will not write a whole lot more about it here, as heaps of pages been written about it already. Curiously this theme is largely absent from the two latest movie adaptations, while it is central to the novel.

The quest for alien aliens is not new for aspiring sci fi writers, and even Asimov failed miserably to evoke something non-antropomorphic in his sole attempt at aliens in the aforementioned The Gods Themselves. That novel nonetheless shares another theme with Solaris: the working of science. Now that I think of it, it’s also key to Radiance, and so accidentally I’ve read & reviewed three books in a row on the matter, and in all three truth is hard to come by. It’s probably telling that only Asimov, while very critical of scientists, lets science redeem his story. Lem takes the other route: by account of Grastrom, “one of the most eccentric authors in Solarist literature”, all science is anthropomorphic. The reader of Solaris is left holding the bag, but there are no definite answers in it – aside from the fact that humans originated on Earth, and our particular ecological history severely limits our epistemological power.

Back to those aliens. It is to Lem’s credit that he just lets it be, and does not resolve a thing. While Greg Egan envisioned aliens even farther removed from our own reality, in Schild’s Ladder rapport proves possible, and also Asimov writes about successful communication – granted, very limited communication, but extremely crucial.

It’s curious that our relation to alien intelligence isn’t upfront in the movies, but then again, maybe it is not. I thought the strongest suit of Solaris was the character of Harey – or ‘Rheya’ in the translation I read. She is quite an invention, and her nature has spawned essays like this – full of spoilers, beware. How would you define the personhood of something that springs out of existence from an alien entity’s registration of another person’s memories – a body without memories of her own life except through the eyes of that other? Her trajectory and growing self-awareness is painted only sketchily, but it is a very powerful portrait nonetheless.

As such, Solaris – to me – was not about mental problems or the lonely hell of a space station with a spooked skeleton crew. It is a story about lost love. Kris Kelvin’s relation to Harey is the major emotional draw of the book, and it is understandable that directors chose that focus over philosophy. At the same time, Lem implicitly asks a very hard question: what do we love? A person? Or a body? Maybe such dichotomies are false. Or maybe that question is the same question Snaut (‘Snow’) asks about halfway the book: “What is a normal man?”

I have written about humans being fully physically determined before, and one possible interpretation of the book is that Kelvin finds freedom in embracing “that part of reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence”, and surrenders to his emotional craving.

The human characters in the novel hardly seem to make choices, but react to their surroundings, probing the protoplasmic ocean, seeing what sticks, reacting to emergencies, oblivious to the how and the why of it all. The only character that does make a clear, deliberate choice is Harey, and it is of note that her final choice is one that is fully predetermined by Kelvin’s final memories of her Earthly counterpart.

Solaris is a rich, rewarding novel. The fact that Megan AM of Couch To Moon wrote very interesting things about how guilt works in the book – something I overlooked completely – hints at its layered strength.

It doesn’t feel dated at all – aside from a wee bit of technical stuff on neutrinos and memory encoded in DNA. Yes, the parts on the science of the alien ocean are a bit long-winded at times, and take up a significant amount of pages, but they ground the protagonist’s story in very realistic, detailed, historical world building – and yet the novel is only about 200 pages. Besides, overall there is a surprising lightness to the story – even though there are ruminations about the nature of gods and science and humanity. Everything considered, it is well balanced, and Lem always keeps the book’s mysteries just out of reach – as they should be.

Most other famous science fiction from the early sixties is pulp. Solaris clearly is not. It is not flawless, but Lem’s utter originality makes sure this harsh, humbling mirror to Earth’s humanity will endure for quite some time.

Solaris cover Chris Yates Arrow

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

31 responses to “SOLARIS – Stanisław Lem (1961)

  1. Great post, Bart, and I am extremely happy that you enjoyed Solaris so much! 😄

    Thanks for the shout-out; hope my posts will serve as a guide to your future Lem reads, and I frankly can’t wait to see your take on Fiasco or Cyberiad 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, appreciated. When I finished it, I couldn’t see what to write about it, but when I started typing, it came together fairly quickly, and I even finished it the same day as I finished the book – that has never happened before. As soon as I realized to me this book was about love (aside from the alien communication) the review wrote itself.

      Those other Lem books might take me some time, I usually leave a few months to over a year before I pick up another title of an author I like, but I’ll do my best. I do plan to read Fiasco first.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yeah, it is a love story; or a story about second chances and what we do with them – can we really overwrite the past? I loved the idea of a planet-ocean as a limited, imbecilic god, able to interact with the physical world in ways we’ll probably be never able to achieve, but at the same time, as incapable of true communication and understanding of humans as humans were of it. The Other remains a mystery, because we are a mystery to ourselves 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed that it’s a great idea, but for me the ocean as limited or imbecilic is not the definitive interpretation – I’m not saying you say it is, but as you stress it here and in your own text on Reenchantment, I guess it’s your favorite either way. Lem puts it there as a possibility, but in the end, we simply don’t know.
          I’m also not sure about the causality of your last sentence: it is not because we are a mystery to ourselves that the Other remains a mystery, but because we are different from the Other – cfr. Thomas Nagel’s text about what it is like to be bat, published 13 years after Solaris btw.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh, it’s an image that stayed with me; if I were to be honest with you, I’d say that my favorite interpretation is that the vision of Solaris as a faulty god is one created by us humans in our own image 😜 as we can’t possibly understand this entity, we measure it by our own standards.

            The causality is also to be disputed; a point of entry, not a conclusion. I think these two are parallel – we don’t understand ourselves, and we don’t understand the Other; I’m not sure if achieving any of these is fully possible, but I believe we still should try; or even more forcefully: that it is our moral imperative as sentient beings. The difference between us and the Other is unbridgeable, at least according to Lem. I’m not so absolute, but then, I was always fond of phenomenology and Levinas. Do read Fiasco! I’m so curious to your thoughts on it! 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • Btw, I didn’t remember I used this in my Lem post! Some things have a lot of staying power, I guess 😉


  2. What led you to the idea that Solaris was a keystone? Other reviewers, other authors talking about Lem, something else?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a few reasons. At first I used Worlds Without Ends to get a feel of the genre, and that site works with lists. Solaris features on quite a lot of those ( and is also on spot nr. 40 of a cumulative list at

      Maybe more important was the way lots of other reviewers kind of assumed everyone familiar with the genre had read Solaris.

      Finally, there’s the movies. The fact that there are 3 adaptations already is telling, and especially the Tarkovski movie in itself became influential in scifi & our culture at large, if I’m to believe what I’ve read about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Definitely a favorite of the 60s — and probably ranks among my favorites of all time. I enjoy how moody and restrained it is. And, well, a sentient ocean is a fantastic idea!

    One I need to reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s restrained indeed, Lem could have gone full out with the horror, and it’s good that he didn’t. Really quality writing.

      For me there are 2 great ideas in the book: Harey, and that ocean indeed. I used to be impressed by Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, and I thought its Pattern Jugglers were a fantastic too, but after reading Solaris I’ll have to knock off a star or 2 of my ratings for those books, as they are plain and simple a rip-off of Lem’s idea. Sure, he modified it, sure, but still, more theft than homage imo. (Not the first time I’ve seen Reynolds appropriate key concepts for his books btw – from Mad Max, The Ring, etc.)

      What I also like is that Lem never makes clear the ocean is conscious. It perceives things, yes, but depending on one’s definition of ‘sentient’, it might not even be that.


  4. I went to check the date of the first Italian edition of this novel, because I know that’s the one I read back then, and the web returned 1973 as the date, which sounds correct since I remember reading it after seeing the original 1972 movie and enjoying the book much more than the movie – no surprises there 🙂
    I’m interested by your comment about the book not feeling outdated and I would like to see for myself, maybe looking for the English translation you mentioned…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for throwing out all these ideas after you read this: you’ve definitely intrigued me enough not to pass on this if it crosses my path.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s pretty singular, my guess is that you would like it too. I’m surprised actually you haven’t read this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how much I haven’t actually read! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I always feel a bit frustrated with people that have 10 or 20 years more of time with speculative fiction under their belt, it feels like a gap that cannot be closed.


          • Sorry you feel frustrated, Bart, but you overestimate my head start! Agreed, I started reading speculative fiction in the late 60s/early 70s, but I wasn’t very adventurous — only Asimov, Andre Norton, the odd Blish or Aldiss and the like — as I tended to focus on Arthurian history, archaeology and fiction to review for a journal I used to edit. So you see it’s not much of a gap to plug. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • Frustration maybe was a bad word, jealousy is maybe better. Your reply reminds me I have yet to read The Once And Future King. Even would I plug gap nr. 1, there still remains gap nr. 2. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

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  7. I’ve read Lem but always skipped this one because it sounds so serious, while much of Lem’s work is satirical out comedic. Now I’m tempted to pick this one up. I’d recommend the cyberiad, the futurological congress and the star diaries.

    Liked by 2 people

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  10. I just started Solaris. It’s really good so far.

    Liked by 1 person

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