Book (and movie?) review: Solaris

Solaris by Stanisław Lem
My rating: three stars

Apparently this wasn’t the first time I’d read Solaris.

After I’d finished this Kindle edition – one with the Lem-approved translation, executed by Bill Johnston – I discovered an older, dog-eared copy of the work on my shelves. I must have read that version from the time in university when I had a Russian partner who was interested in getting me into Russian literature, to the extent that I wrote some essays for her. (On Goncharov, I think? I can’t quite remember.)

Anyway, being unable to remember treading those star-paths before seemed to be very in keeping with the work itself, and I assume Lem would approve.

The novel details the journey of a scientist, Kris Kelvin, as he travels to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. His mission? To understand what the fuck’s going on up there. The other scientists he’s dropping in on have been acting strangely (to the point of suicide) and the plug’s about to be pulled.

Oh yeah, and the planet is home to a sentient ocean that likes to build fractal architecture and garden models in its spare time.

When I was at school, thanks to facts discovered later, Solaris was widely regarded as a planet endowed with life—but with only a single inhabitant…

It also likes to send replica versions of your most painful or dearest memory up to visit you, which is how Kelvin gets to meet his dead wife again, a sort of intergalactic RealDoll reliant on closeness to exist.

While there’s a certain element of Cold War paranoia at work – the floating in my tin can vibe of the times – the story isn’t really about space bugs or high opera. It’s about the possibility – or more appropriately, the impossibility – of communicating. Ostensibly it’s about communicating with the living ocean below the station, but really the novel looks more closely at interpersonal communications, and ultimately at the way we communicate with ourselves through memory and experience, no matter how much we distract ourselves with star-striving, exploration and achievement.

We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. One world is enough, even there we feel stifled. We desire to find our own idealized image; they’re supposed to be globes, civilizations more perfect than ours; in other worlds we expect to find the image of our own primitive past.

So why three stars? That’s the question someone on GoodReads has already asked me, as if the text is some kind of stone-cold killer impervious to lowballed review scores from jerks like me. The thing is that I’m not completely sold on the work itself. It strikes me that the work offers food for thought in spite of the fact that it feels unsatisfying as either a sci-fi story or as a philosophical polemic. There’s some nice moments where Solaristics, the study of the mysterious planet, seems in for some science-as-religion criticism, but it’s only briefly covered before the narrative moves on.

I guess I felt frustrated with the book, and realised that I’d conflated it with the adaptations of the work that I’d seen.

That’s where the film comes in. I first watched Tarkovsky’s take on the story on a double-cased VHS tape, but thankfully Mosfilm has put both parts of it online in HD so you don’t have to find a still-functioning Blockbuster:

That VEST.

I watched both the Tarkovsky and the Soderbergh versions one after the other, and found a lot to like about both of them.

First things first: I preferred Soderbergh’s take on the story, because it eschewed the interactions with the sentient sea in favour of making the personal the focus. I suppose both films did this – SFX of the time limited the amount of fantastical colloidal construction that could be depicted on film – but Soderbergh was more brief, and I think made things feel more successfully plotted.

Tarkovsky, as expected, was very meandering and long – it’s three hours long – but quite beautiful in a lot of places, and scratches the vintage SF itch very well, when the film isn’t throwing its hands up in the air and setting whole sections in distinctly non-space dining rooms. I like vibe over narrative, but I did feel like the runtime could have been reduced somewhat and the story tightened – but this criticism is knocked out by the film’s last scene, which I think is the more powerful of the two, and genuinely frightening in its import.

(I will admit, however, that Tarkovsky is perhaps displaying grief through the feature’s languorous pace: Kris is a broken man, moving through life at the only speed grief allows him to muster. )

Soderbergh manages to turn Clooney (in his World’s Handsomest Bachelor stage) into a sad psych. The story is turned more into a meditation on interpersonal relationships and the role of one’s interpretation of actions on the down-the-track ramifications of communication’s recall – which I felt was closer to the novel, even though Lem bitched about the film without seeing it – than anything else. I thought the set design and soundtrack were exemplary (Soderbergh’s films always look and sound great) and that the criticism of the film seems to have stemmed from how it was marketed rather than the content of the film itself.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I enjoyed the films more than I enjoyed the book. I don’t know that there’s been a perfect adaptation as the source isn’t a perfect document: it’s a jumping-off point for thoughts loosely disguised as a narrative, with not enough attention paid to either the thinking or the story to make either end stick well.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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