Saturday, July 18, 2015

the last book I read

Solaris by Stanisław Lem.

Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, has been assigned an unusual mission: travel through the vastness of space to the mysterious ocean planet of Solaris, and investigate some strange goings-on at the long-standing manned scientific station in low orbit above the planet's surface. The crew's regular communications have become sparse and garbled of late and there's some concern for their welfare.

He arrives to find that the man he'd expected to meet him, his old friend Gibarian, has committed suicide that very morning and that the only two remaining members of the crew, Snow and Sartorius, appear to be in a state of extreme paranoia and are reluctant to leave their respective rooms.

The research station has been in place for much of the century or so since humans discovered Solaris, in a mostly futile attempt to understand what happens on and beneath the surface of the planet. This is no ordinary ocean, you see; decades of study have led to the conclusion that it is a single gigantic organism of some kind, given to occasional bizarre outpourings of some sort of pent-up energy via the construction of giant crystalline structures which spontaneously erupt from the ocean's surface. Any attempts at communication have so far proved futile, so the scientific crew have decided to crank up the volume knob a bit and have been bombarding the planet with high-energy X-rays. The planet's response seems to have been to generate, via unknown means, a replica of a person from the former lives of each of the crew, place them on the station and have them follow them around. Moreover, not just any randomly selected past acquaintance, but someone who has a particularly painful psychic resonance for the target.

In Kelvin's case this means that having spent a night on the station he awakes to find his ex-wife Rheya sitting watching him. Disturbing enough given the vast distance from Earth, but more so since she committed suicide after an argument with Kelvin ten years previously. It appears that these "visitors" are created from the mental image that their targets have of them, and have little awareness that they are not who they appear to be. Understandably freaked out by Rheya's sudden appearance, Kelvin lures her into an escape pod and blasts her off into orbit. This provides only a brief respite, though, as the next night an exact replica of the original exact replica appears in his room, as unaware of her true nature as she is of the fate of her predecessor. Despite his knowledge of her origins Kelvin finds himself unable to stop himself experiencing his former feelings for her.

Rheya eventually comes to a knowledge of her true nature through listening to an audio diary left by Gibarian, and, finding the knowledge unbearable, colludes with Snow and Sartorius to have them try out a newly-developed (and conveniently MacGuffinesque) matter-annihilating device on her which will poof her out of existence once and for all. The remaining crew members then have to decide whether to abandon the station and the planet and return to Earth. A no-brainer, you'd think, but the planet exerts a strange psychic pull on them all. Will they be able to leave it behind?

As celebrated as its author Stanisław Lem (pronunciation assistance can be found here) is in science fiction circles, Solaris is still best known through its film adaptations, most famously Andrei Tarkovsky's legendarily moody and glacially-paced 1972 version, but also the shorter 2002 Steven Soderbergh adaptation starring (among others) George Clooney - the entire movie can be seen here. I've got the DVD of the latter and I actually thought it was pretty good, in a glum sort of way, but I should add that I've never seen the Tarkovsky version, and obviously at the time of watching I'd never read the book either - you'll see from the image that my paperback copy is a tie-in version for the Soderbergh/Clooney film. I didn't know that there was also an earlier Russian made-for-TV version from 1968.

As far as I can make out all of the adaptations focus more on the dynamics of the interpersonal relationships on the station, rather than the spectacular details of the planet's macro-scale performance art, and for good reasons. Firstly since up to a handful of years ago that stuff would have been impossible to render convincingly anyway without some pretty gnarly CGI, and secondly because it's just less interesting anyway. The novel sags noticeably during its couple of lengthy forays into historical/scientific exposition, and the real interest is in the questions about what it means to be human: let's say an exact physical replica was made of you, with a current backup of your brain state dumped into its brain - would that be you? If not, would anyone who knew you and encountered it be able to tell the difference? If not, what do you mean by "you", exactly? There are some other interesting questions raised in the book (not so much in the films) about communication with alien intelligence, should we happen to ever encounter any, and the arrogance of assuming that it'll be anything like us, and that communication with it will even be possible, still less fruitful or useful. And, finally, there's the idea that the most terrifying thing possible is not giant be-tentacled Things from beyond infinity, but simply to have a perfect mirror held up to ourselves and to see and know ourselves perfectly.

Anyway, it's very good, very slim (my edition is 214 pages), thought-provoking and well worth a read despite the occasional lumpiness where Lem goes off into detailed descriptions of planetary behaviour, and the more general criticism that not a great deal actually happens, and we're not much the wiser about the stuff that does happen at the end than we were at the beginning.

Note that this is the second book on this list to have been the subject of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, the other being Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker in 1979. For what it's worth, and for all that there's nothing much wrong with Solaris, I think that one is a better book.

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