I just saw an ad on American Movie Classics for the sci-fi movie Enemy Mine, in which the voiceover apologizes, “This just happens to be science fiction!” This is precisely the problem with most science fiction: one SF story is just like a Western, one’s just like a pioneer adventure, another’s just like a hardboiled film noir, and so on until nobody cares. With Western science fiction’s roots in an essentially progressive and optimistic humanism, this is to be expected, maybe; sci-fi stories always reflect familiar, universal concerns and themes — but in space!
It’s with a bit of trepidation, then, that I look forward to the American movie adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a dense and thoughtful science fiction novel that couldn’t be anything but a science fiction novel, because Lem writes not of the familiar, but the alien. Lem’s novels pit rational men and their rational models against a universe that does not always yield to their self-serving analyses; in Lem’s universe, world x is not just like an Amazonian rain forest, world y is not just like the Sahara desert, and there are no ewoks to be found, not even a thought of them.
In Solaris, Lem writes of a godlike, sentient ocean on a planet (named… Solaris) orbiting two stars, an ocean that becomes the object of obsessive but fruitless study by human scientists, giving rise to the curious discipline of Solaristics: Lem parades fictional theories of Solaris before the reader in exquisite, Borges-like detail, parodies of academic scholarship (Lem would go on to write an entire book of fictional literary criticism) intended to reveal more about their fictional authors than the alien ocean. There is a plot, though. Shortly after the novel begins, we find that Solaris has populated an orbiting space station with spectres plucked from its students’ memories, perhaps mocking them, perhaps studying them in turn. One such ghost turns out to be the protagonist’s dead wife, and thus the novel is given an element of tragic romance, and perhaps an element of horror, but the novel cannot be reduced to either. Truthfully, it’s difficult for me to express the appeal of Solaris; at times, it reminds me of Borges, Asimov, Clarke, Kafka, and, as it closes, even Sartre. Though it may not be quite worthy of such comparisons, this is a book that is dear to me.