Space Ocean Leaves Humanity On Read: Literary Spotlight on Solaris

March, 2022
Wenying Wu, Blog Correspondent

In the oeuvre of Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem, science itself is always under intense scrutiny. Predictably, considering their publication during the Cold War, Lem’s novels reflect (to some degree) nuclear proliferation induced apocalyptic anxieties. However, Lem’s critique of the scientific enterprise focuses less on humanity’s capacity for technologically accelerated destruction and more on human faith in scientific rationality. What are the limits of human understanding? What happens when we reach them?   

Consider a living, conscious ocean; an alien entity of unknown provenance pulsating in another star system, a whole new world. Now, seek to understand it, to interface, to connect, and fail. Try again. Fail again. Then fail, well, approximately the same? 

In 1961’s Solaris [1], Stanisław Lem’s most famous novel [2], psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives on the Solaris station, a research station floating above the Solarian ocean, to evaluate the status of the researchers and determine the continued viability of the Solaris project. The title planet—locus of mankind’s first encounter with alien life—exists in a type of academic and epistemological stasis. Since the initial discovery that the planet Solaris’ all-encompassing gel ocean seems to be some kind of living and sentient entity, the history of human endeavours to instigate “first contact” has been an exercise in academic futility.

Humanity first recognizes Solaris’ potential through their observation of its orbit; Solaris is caught in a binary star system that, according to all known laws of physics, should result in a rapidly degenerating and unstable orbit. As the years pass, Earth scientists observe no expected signs of degeneration and eventually realize that the planet’s gel ocean constantly shifts to maintain Solaris’ orbital regularity. Though some scientists hold that the ocean is a thoughtless defense mechanism of the planet itself, existing merely to hold it in orbit, further observation of the ocean’s complexities leads to the consensus that Solaris is a living being of some degree of sentience. Humans are social animals; from the realization of sentience, the quest for contact begins [3].

A utopian view of scientific progress optimistically supposes that scientific inquiry will always result in greater knowledge. And though there is knowledge that humans cannot fully grasp, science is pointed in the right direction. Science will take us closer to understanding, if not all the way there. Scoured of the stink of human passions, scientific rationalism is logical, progressive, and capable of lifting humanity above an instinctive, animalistic understanding of the world. This is not the vision of science that Stanisław Lem is invested in. Solaris portrays science directionless, confounded, obsessed over trivialities, and quite firmly at a dead end. Most Solaricists have given up completely on the idea of “establishing contact” with the ocean. In contrast to the revolutionary goal of communication with human life, most of the field’s newer developments rest in cataloguing the shifting formations on the ocean’s surface. How does an ocean think? What does action mean to an ocean? Does the ocean have to be conscious to feel? Does it have to feel to be living? How does an ocean speak? To attempt contact with a wholly alien life form like the Solarian ocean is to run up against all the assumptions that underly human ideas of cognition, life, and consciousness. Can human rationality ever allow us to think like an ocean enough to speak to it? What would communication to a planet-encompassing, amorphous, asocial mass even mean? Perhaps the best we can do with something like Solaris is practice the comfortable habits of taxonomy [4]

When Kris Kelvin arrives on the station, he soon learns that recent experiments in irradiating the ocean’s surface has resulted in the ocean manifesting neutrino-based apparitions on the station [5], all drawn from the minds of the station’s scientists. Kelvin’s own apparition is his late lover Rheya, who had died by suicide many years ago. The scientists aboard the station are leery at revealing their own apparitions, things notable enough in their consciousness that they were plucked out by the ocean. The ocean, it seems, is finally paying note to the human mind. But are the humans and the ocean any closer to communication? Are the apparitions even an attempt at communication? For the human scientists, they seem more like confrontations by the spectres that haunt their minds, echoes of shames or mistakes or vulnerabilities they’ve buried deep down [6]. Whatever language the ocean might be trying to speak—if it even is trying to say anything at all—is left undeciphered. 

While much of science fiction takes on the stages of action and intrigue, the novel and the intrepid, an oft neglected setting is the academic context in which much of scientific research actually occurs. Lem was critical of science fiction that focused on spectacle, shock, and action over what he viewed as the philosophical concerns of serious literature [7]. I’m still a fan of mainstream action-packed speculative fiction, but Lem’s work offers a deeply contemplative alternative vision, a reflection of our intellectual world in a fun-house mirror. Although Lem’s pondering of epistemological limitation may seem depressingly pessimistic, there is something strangely beautiful about the world imagined in Solaris. Other voices—though even to call them voices is a surfeit of anthropomorphism—reverberate through the universe on registers the human mind cannot ever fathom; is that a measure of our humble smallness or our exceptional singularity? Whether we are miniscule or unique, we can be certain of our uncertainty: even a desolate and empty world does not prove we are really alone.



[1] There are two English translations of Solaris. The first one was a translation of Jean-Michel Jasiensko’s French translation, by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, which Lem expressed disappointment about. In 2011, Bill Johnston published a direct English translation, which Lem’s wife and son approved. The Johnston translation seems to have taken fewer creative liberties with the text. I personally found the Johnston translation more readable, and I was always confused by the name changes that the Kilmartin-Cox translation made, so I would probably recommend the latter. Of course, fidelity isn’t the only metric by which translations should be measured. Languages don’t really have one-to-one relationships with each other, so any translation is still a completely new work of art. In this case, I do think the more “faithful” translation reads better.

[2] Thanks in part to a very well-known film adaption by Andrei Tarkovsky. Stanisław Lem disliked the adaptation because it elided over his interrogation of scientific rationalism in favour of examining the psychological complexities of the human characters. Tarkovsky’s response was something like… it’s my movie, I do what I want.   

[3] On a tangential note, I have to say that my second favourite type of alien contact story—right after the “this alien life is so radically different from us that actual contact is impossible” kind—is the type where the humans decide that, hey, maybe the aliens are hot. Maybe we seduce the aliens. Maybe the process of the seduction exposes some of our deeply held assumptions about sex, love, and gender as mutable. Embrace xenophilia.

[4] Though even there Solaricists hit dead-ends since many of their classifications of the ocean’s phenomena end up being oversimplifications. We should just stop classifying things. Permanently.

[5] While I am generous with my praise of many aspects of Solaris, Lem’s depiction of one of the apparitions is a very questionable and dehumanizing depiction of blackness. The ocean produces an apparition of a nude black woman from one scientist’s mind, and the implication is that she represents some kind of shameful sexual obsession for him. Overall, not the most pleasant read, especially considering the overwhelming European-ness of the named characters in the novel.  

[6] It’s free exposure therapy! 

[7] He was particularly critical of American science fiction, though he singled out Philip K. Dick for praise. Dick, on the other hand, possibly in a drug-induced haze, wrote a letter warning the FBI that Lem was actually a constructed identity for a committee of writers from the KGB. Really makes you think.  

Scoured of the stink of human passions, scientific rationalism is logical, progressive, and capable of lifting humanity above an instinctive, animalistic understanding of the world. This is not the vision of science that Stanisław Lem is invested in.

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