Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.
Author: Stanisław Lem
Genre: science fiction
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Solaris, by Stanisław Lem, is a story about the impossibility of establishing contact with other species, our ineffective approach anthropomorphizing the unknown and, lastly, a reflection on human identity.
Told from the perspective of psychologist Kris Kelvin, the story takes place on the extraterrestrial planet Solaris, composed in its entirety by a seemingly intelligent protoplasmatic ocean. Countless scientists (the “solarists”) have set out to study the true nature of this mysterious ocean endowed with senses and how to interact with it. There are plenty of discussions that revolve around the knowledge collected so far on Solaris; however, the studies have been somewhat unsuccessful past the descriptive scope of the ocean’s phenomena. After years of research, no one has been able to reach practical conclusions about the true nature of it.
These fruitless attempts to establish contact are not entirely exempt from an answer: for whatever reason, the ocean seems to be able to access and decipher the human mind’s nook and crannies. The three scientists aboard the space station receive unexpected -yet seemingly human- visits created by the ocean. Kris meets Harey, his ex-partner who committed suicide after ending their relationship. His reaction to her presence is, understandably, painful: his visitor embodies his guilt, as well as the memories of the happy and not-so-happy moments of their relationship. Despite its implausibility, Kevin cannot help linking the ocean’s existence to Harey’s return.
Consequently, the author brings forth three compelling issues. First, proposing an anthropomorphic approach is inappropriate when it comes to studying an alien entity (why do they do it? Is there any hidden reason? Do they want to tell us something?). Second, assuming that our reiterated desire to establish contact will reach a positive outcome. And, finally, our heavy reliance on the otherworldly to explain the limits of scientific knowledge. Indeed, ignorance is the reason that leads some of these scientists to consider the sea as a superior entity (i.e., the ocean’s seeming parallels with God).
Solaris sets itself apart from certain conventions within the genre (there is neither an answer nor a journey) and exposes the apparent arrogance of our desire to dominate and give meaning to everything. Ultimately, our human prism limits our ability to sustain purpose, yet our own identity remains a mystery to us.