(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The opening of Lem’s best-known novel, Solaris, illustrates his capacity, reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s, to create believable accounts of futuristic technology, but the book’s central concerns are with the psychological and the theological rather than the technological.

The novel begins with a meticulous description of cosmic adventurer Kris Kelvin’s shuttle flight from the starship Prometheus to a research station on planet Solaris. The scientific verisimilitude of this introductory scene is followed by a mystical and claustrophobic tale of guilt and love by means of which Lem examines profound questions of identity, communication, creative thought, and divine power.

The central premise of the plot is that several generations of experimenters and theoreticians have attempted, without success, to comprehend and make contact with the godlike oceanic life form that surrounds the planet Solaris, an effort which is continuing. In the past, much of the research, which Lem describes by using his frequently employed device of elaborate digression, has involved cataloging complex architectonic structures on the planet’s surface and speculating on what thought processes might lie behind their appearance, evolution, and reabsorption. These speculations, a vehicle for conveying Lem’s own meditations on the nature of creative thought, vary from attributing nothing more than a mechanical origin to the structures to seeing them as something akin to the imaginings of Aristotle’s unmoved mover.

Most recently, a team of scientists has bombarded portions of the oceanic entity with...

(The entire section is 672 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Solaris, a planet which orbits a double star, is covered with an “ocean.” The ocean is a colloidal substance which, by altering its shape, somehow maintains the orbit of the planet, which otherwise would plunge eventually into one of its suns. Solaris was found by space travelers from Earth in the century previous to the setting of the novel. Its remarkable single inhabitant, the ocean, has caused an entire field of Solarian studies to arise and has produced an enormous library of scientific publications.

Kris Kelvin, a young researcher in “Solaristics,” arrives from Earth, descending from an orbiting rocket ship to a laboratory station which hovers above the Solarian ocean. He expects to join three researchers who have been there for some time. He finds the laboratory in great disorder and one of the scientists, Gibarian, dead from a recent suicide. Another, Sartorius, refuses to leave his room, and the third, Snow, reacts in terror to Kelvin’s arrival. He has to be convinced that Kelvin is who he claims to be.

Kelvin has an eerie feeling that he is being observed even when he is alone, and Solaris is thus, in part, a detective story, in which Kelvin, through a series of deductions, discovers what has caused the disruption in the work of the laboratory.

The Solarian ocean, in fact, is found to be a sentient being, capable of reading the human mind and creating, apparently out of its own substance, exact copies of persons from one’s erotic past. Gibarian has been driven to suicide by the presence of his “visitor,” a giant African woman whom Kelvin finds sleeping next to Gibarian’s corpse. Sartorius remains locked in his room, and Kelvin hears the wild laughter of a child through the locked door. Snow never permits Kelvin to see his visitor, who nevertheless always seems to be hovering nearby.

Kelvin’s first response to these apparitions is to assume that he has lost his mind, but when he checks what he has observed against the laboratory computer’s data he finds, somewhat to his dismay,...

(The entire section is 843 words.)