I remember seeing this science fiction classic on my dad’s bookshelves growing up, always meaning to sit down and give it a read. In this case, I’m glad I procrastinated. The only English translation available was actually translated from the French translation of the book, and it apparently wasn’t that good, but now Audible.com has produced a proper Polish to English translation by Bill Johnston.
Kris Kelvin has just landed on a hovering research facility on the planet of Solaris. The planet is covered in an ocean that past researchers discovered to be a giant single-cell organism, and they’ve been been making futile attempts to communicate with it for years. Once Kelvin has landed, it’s immediately apparent that something is very wrong, and he soon receives his first ‘visitor’.
I love that this is an alien we can’t really comprehend. It’s not just a gangly humanoid with large eyes. This is a new entity that seems to be alive, and that’s all we know. We can’t relate to it, and we can’t effectively communicate. Most writers treat alien encounters like a meeting between two humans who don’t speak a common language, but if we don’t even understand what they are or how they exist, no amount of hand gesturing is going to get through to them. They might not even acknowledge us as a species worth noticing.
Solaris isn’t an action-packed novel. It’s slow-paced, very atmospheric, and revolves largely around the intricacies of trying to understand each other. The translation seems to be well-done, although when the occasional line of dialogue or description didn’t ring true with me, such as a character’s emotional turn seeming to come out of nowhere, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a translation issue or a bit of poor writing.
My one common problem with science fiction made an appearance again in this book – info dumping. I suppose it’s a hard balance. I want to learn about this planet, and I find it fascinating, but I also don’t want to sit through multiple chapters of exposition. There were a few instances of this. Right at the beginning of the novel, for example, Kelvin freaks out, locks himself in a room, and rereads the history of Solaris.
Slightly spoilery bit begins.
The ‘visitors’ I referred to above are actually created somehow by the planet. These manifestations are pulled from the mind of those they are visiting, their deepest regret and repressed memory, and they arrive not knowing what’s happening around them. I loved this aspect of the story and how it played out once the visitor started to become self-aware. It’s a very interesting concept, and I thought he did a good job with it. He somewhat satisfied our curiosity while still leaving enough ambiguity to keep you thinking about it.
Slightly spoilery bit ends.
I really enjoyed this. The narration by Alessandro Juliani, who I hadn’t recognized before now as the actor who played Felix Gaeta on Battlestar Galactica, did a fantastic job. Apparently some of Lem’s other novels are quite bizarre, so I would like to eventually read more from him.