book review: solaris

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is the kind of science fiction I love.

A scientist is sent to a space station orbiting a planet that has a truly alien ocean. The ocean may be alive. It may be intelligent. No one knows even though they’ve been studying it for a hundred years. He arrives on the station and the other scientists are acting strangely and then he’s approached by a visitor. I’ll leave off any more plot summary for fear of spoiling the book.

Things I loved about this book are how the weirdness of what’s happening in the station and what the planet is like are for the most part inexplicable. Just like in Blindsight this is a first contact tale with something alien that we can’t actually understand, not something that’s just like us in a funny mask.

The relationship between the narrator and his wife and the other scientists are all very tense. There’s a lot of stuff about responsibility and guilt and what we carry around in our heads.

There are good scenes in the library where we learn about the planet’s history. All the paper books and the tape-recorders are the only things that really give it away that this book wasn’t written today. What would a new translation of the book do with that now? If you were translating the book from Polish today would you also translate those technologies? You wouldn’t need to, but I’m not sure how much it would hurt the book. (This is not me advocating for technological revisionism in classic works of science fiction; just an idle musing.)

Solaris has had two famous movie adaptations. One by Tarkovskiy and one remake by Steven Soderbergh (starring George Clooney). I think I’ve only seen the remake and it had a very different feel from the book, which was less ominous and more curious. That’s my impression at least.

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