Solaris is a strange and marvelous novel with much haunting beauty and a tint of the surreally inexplicable. Its damaged protagonist explores the mystery of Solaris—and through it the mystery of himself and identity itself.
A simulacrum of Rheya, Kris Kelvin’s dead lover, appears on Solaris, a planet that inspired many strange stories and fruitless investigations. Kelvin attacks the problem of understanding the physical embodiment of Rheya with the scientist’s desire for a truth, yet understanding is unforthcoming. The technical mysteries (where did the simulacrum come from and how does it work? Should one call it “it” or “she?”) blend in with the personal ones: what is the nature of their relationship? How much does one really know of a person outside of the narrow lens of what the other reveals to us?
The human in Solaris is far from Earth and from our society, but he is never far from his own dreams and memories; confronting their physical manifestation takes more than the scientist in him can give. The nature of Kelvin’s methods eventually become humanistic too, and Solaris indicates that the two cannot be fully separated. Stanislaw Lem may have been reflecting the preoccupations of his time: the Soviet Union had embarked on a vast and cruel experiment to attempt to accomplish exactly that, and his native Poland suffered for it, as did many other countries. He may also be commenting on the inadequacies of any single method to offer full explanations of life or purpose. For Kelvin, science is a way of life and a purpose that is ultimately hollow.
Solaris is also an unusual book for me to like because even long after the period when I read deeply into science fiction—though then I mostly the adventure in space variety—I can still praise it, and the novel holds up in a way the weak or formulaic stuff can’t. In this respect Solaris reminds me of Hyperion, another novel I read after the end of my science fiction period. Unlike that book, however, Solaris ends with a sense of ambiguity and melancholy, which is appropriate; sometimes the lingering sense of incompleteness works. Dune did too, and the rest of the books were just worthless attempts at explication, when the mystery of the first was sufficient for readers, if not for Herbert and his descendants’ wallets. Dune was art while the later books were at best philosophy and at worst trash, while Solaris is art: ethereal and yet concrete, with a quiet lyricism blended into the reality of existence.