Is there a more entrancing account of an encounter with nonhuman sentience than Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris? The reputation of this 1961 masterwork of Polish science fiction, translated from the 1964 French translation into English in 1970, largely depends on various film adaptations, including Tarkovsky’s stunning 1972 reimagining. Yet what keeps drawing me back to the original novel is something that eludes adaptation: the trenchant exteriority of the novel’s ultimate protagonist, Solaris itself. In 2018 we have begun to grapple, tentatively, with the almost pantheistic notion that Earth’s seas may be alive with a will and logic all their own. Lem’s vision of oceanic vitalism likely speaks more cogently to readers today than it did to his audience half a century ago.
Solaris begins with the arrival of Kelvin, a scientist—an expert in “Solaristics,” no less. He joins the bedraggled group of fellow Solarists on a space station orbiting the only planet of a binary solar system. The planet’s entire surface is covered by one vast sentient ocean: think of that wave-wracked water world that greeted Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar. Kelvin finds himself in a decayed environment inhabited by elusive, unstable (and in some cases dead) colleagues. Even the scientist’s landing on the station strikes a discordant note: rather than a human voice answering his hail, he hears “successive bursts of static … against a background of deep, low-pitched murmuring.” It’s as if “the very voice of the planet itself” were coming over his radio.
It is a bit tricky to relate Kelvin’s mind-bending encounters with the vast being that covers Solaris without spoilers. One crucial point is that the ocean’s strange properties relate to the planet’s unlikely capacity to stay in a relatively stable orbit movement between its two suns: in other words, this particular three-body problem gets solved by intentional tidal forces. Perhaps as a corollary of its capacity to remain attuned to its environment in this way, the Solaris ocean reveals an uncanny capacity to mine the unconscious of its visitors, producing too-real reproductions of the lovers, children, or guilty passions that haunt them. Watching Kelvin interact with a vast intelligence that both shapes and reacts to his thoughts, readers come to ponder what sorts of immense hidden armatures may be sustaining and conditioning all they think and do.
Lem’s vision of oceanic vitalism has even greater salience today, thanks to the cosmic implications of one aspect of global warming.
Kelvin and the few remaining Solarists respond to the ocean’s sentience by turning it into the protagonist of a fiction they weave around their close encounter. “Certainly it was only too obvious that the ocean had ‘noticed’ us,” Kelvin says. “That fact alone invalidated that category of Solarist theories which claimed that the ocean was an ‘introverted world,’ a ‘hermit entity,’ … unaware of the existence of external object and events, the prisoner of a gigantic vortex of mental currents created and confined in the depths of this monster revolving between two suns.” Instead, he asserts in a moment of clarity, “the ocean lived, thought, and acted.”
Kelvin and company struggle to make sense of a planet-scale entity endowed with cognitive and intentional powers, to grasp its alienness without reducing it: “Like it or not, men must pay attention to this neighbor, light years away … a neighbor situated inside our sphere of expansion, and more disquieting than all the rest of the universe.” He devotes himself to lessons in becoming a viewpoint, rather than a human observer. And like Lem’s memorable comic creation, the space traveler Ijon Tichy (and like Tichy’s direct descendant, Arthur Dent, in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Kelvin is well aware of the “temptations of a latent anthropomorphism.”
It is respect for the Solaris ocean in all its ungraspable alienness that both tortures and inspires Kelvin. He reaches for a “long-distance view” of the ocean, then reverses the perspective, trying to see himself as “from a long way off, as through the wrong end of a telescope.” This move, learned from looking at Solaris from ever-increasing intervals of distance, allows him the cognitive and narrative ability to grow smaller in relation to his environment. In Kelvin, Lem marries a very formalist sense of defamiliarization with the techniques of estrangement beloved in science fiction to create a flawed but compelling observer.
Jonathan Culler entitled a 1985 piece on Lem “If the Sea Were Intelligent,” gesturing to an insight of Lem’s that has even greater salience today, thanks to the cosmic implications of one aspect of global warming. Any aliens who happen to be observing Earth acutely enough will notice its orbit slowing down, and slowing down even more quickly as time goes on. If their scientists are shrewd, they may even discover that the agency behind this slowdown is a liquid one: the melting ice caps and their resultant contribution to global sea levels are changing the movement of the planet through space. The way that the water moves, masses, and incites a wobble in Earth’s seemingly stable rotation may invite those aliens’ attention and speculation.
It is as if the seas themselves were able to rise up in response to our incomplete and feeble attempts to narrate the all-too-human causes of ocean change on a planetary scale. This science-fictional opportunity for an ocean to seize narrative control gives readers a better chance to imagine the elusive nonhuman world. Solaris offers up one of the 20th century’s great ecological protagonists, an entity that, in all of its impenetrability, presents an admittedly warped reflection of our own cognitive situation. Yet that very warp, that strangeness, may provide the best possibility of thinking about the outside that is always beside, always inside us.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.