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Solaris Paperback – 3 Mar. 2016
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When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface he is forced to confront a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others suffer from the same affliction and speculation rises among scientists that the Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates incarnate memories, but its purpose in doing so remains a mystery . . .
Solaris raises a question that has been at the heart of human experience and literature for centuries: can we truly understand the universe around us without first understanding what lies within?
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About the Author
- Publisher : Faber & Faber; Main edition (3 Mar. 2016)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 224 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0571311571
- ISBN-13 : 978-0571311576
- Dimensions : 12.9 x 1.3 x 19.8 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 21,701 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer reviews:
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So what is the book about? I’m not sure I can answer that question. I’m not even sure Lem could have answered it. On a purely prosaic level it is about the planet Solaris. Largely ignored when first discovered as it was calculated that its unstable orbit around a binary pair of stars meant it would shortly be meeting its end, but it later turns out that orbit was somehow being actively managed to maintain stability by what was now interpreted to be a sentient planet; at least the ocean of plasma covering the surface is thought to be sentient. This new understanding has generated much renewed interest in the planet and the possibility of making Contact with it. By the start of the book this research has been ongoing for over a hundred years with the only real progress being the creation of whole libraries of books cataloguing the unfathomable behaviour of the ocean of plasma, of Solaris. Many theories abound but there has been absolutely no success in creating any plausible interpretation of these phenomena. Into this scenario steps Kris Kelvin the newest recruit to the permanent research station on Solaris numbering just four members including Kelvin.
The narrative divides quite distinctly into two separate threads; the human interactions of the research team and the description of the behaviour of the Solaris over the many years it has been studied. The first is handled as a fairly straight forward story narrative as the crew try to understand the ‘ghosts’ so disturbingly created by Solaris from their own memories. The second is handled through an immense amount of incredibly dense pure exposition. Hard to read and simply documenting the history of observations of Solaris’ behaviour over the years and the abortive attempts to understand them. This latter makes up a good half of the text and its sole purpose seems to be to present Solaris as being utterly impenetrable and that ultimately all attempts to understand it are doomed. So effectively half of the book is just descriptions of the incomprehensible actions of the planet which remain to the end of the book unexplained and unexplainable. Very unsatisfying; the only philosophical conclusion seems to be that any attempt to understand any alien intelligence will be inevitably doomed to the same failure.
Due to this lack of understanding and explanation these two threads never really coalesce; the human interactions are almost entirely driven by the actions of Solaris but there is no understanding as to how or why and, most disappointingly, the book never makes any attempt to give any conclusive explanation. It is interesting to consider the three cinematic adaptations of the book; the first was a 1966 Russian two part film for TV, the second another Russian Film made in 1972 and the third, and the one probably most familiar to people in the West, a Hollywood film starring George Clooney made in 2002. What is interesting about these films is that they highlight the dual nature of the book; the first adaption concentrating on the planet Solaris whilst the second two concentrate on the human interactions. Lem himself states that these last two have got it wrong, that ‘This is why the book was entitled "Solaris" and not "Love in Outer Space."’
So we can take it from Lem himself that the main drive of the book is the unfathomable nature of alien intelligence. He provides us with excessively longwinded and dense descriptions of the behaviour of Solaris and never provides any sort of conclusion or explanation for them. Ultimately it all seems rather pointless; to go to such lengths to describe all the bizarre and fantastic activities of Solaris and then to tell the reader that this behaviour can never be understood. I was left feeling why bother? It’s a short book but it took a long time to read, ploughing through all that dense exposition, and at the end left me feeling cheated with no reward for all that effort. Solaris is described as Philosophical SF and maybe I’m just not philosopher enough to appreciate it. A somewhat grudging three stars; it did have some very interesting ideas.
The story itself is great, but don't be afraid to skip several pages whenever it descends into dry exposition about previous research attempts and theories.
Some books stand the test of time. Others don’t. Early on in this book the word “Neg***s” is used, and I almost gave up there and then. On top of this is the constant low-grade sexism: Kelvin becomes obsessed with saving a woman because of MAN PAIN, and she is in love with him because, well, you know, that is what women do.
Okay. This is a classic of science fiction. I’ve read Kipling and swallowed his racism because it is great writing. But accepting the dated social ideas leads you into a second problem.
Much of this book is essays on epistemology – how we know things and how you can justify a belief. These are essential to the story. Except, well, I had to study Epistemology as part of my PhD and this book is, unsurprisingly, 60 years out of date. It is like reading like an essay on how to use leeches to cure period pains.
When he ditches the serious science for the adventure and the impossibility of his quest for redemption, this is a good read. If I had read this when it was first published, I would have thought it marvellous. Kelvin makes a lot of weird decisions, some of which of unquestionably cruel, but there is a good, imaginative adventure in here. Just be ready for it to feel very old-fashioned.