Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674
Kris Kelvin, a scientist in his early thirties who has just arrived at the Solaris station. Kelvin descends from space to find that the experimental work station he has reached is in chaos. He feels fearful and disoriented when he discovers that his former teacher, Gibarian, has just committed suicide and that the station’s two other scientists appear to be insane: Snow and Sartorius often hide in their rooms and speak in a cryptic and paranoid fashion. After waking from a much-needed sleep, Kelvin finds himself confronted with the reincarnation of his girlfriend, Rheya, who committed suicide ten years earlier, after he had left her. Although he is repulsed by this replica of a past love, he also appreciates the opportunity to expiate his guilt over her death and continue, if only in a sham, the experience of their relationship. As he talks to the other scientists, reads books in the station’s library, and performs experiments, he gradually comes to understand that she is a projection of his own memories created by the planetary entity he has come to study. When she dissolves at the novel’s end, he is left with the desire to get her back again but has little hope that this will occur.
Solaris, the protoplasmic creature that covers the planet of the same name. For more than a hundred years, Earth missions have attempted to understand this multibillion-ton gelatinous oceanic entity. Although the myriad shapes that form on this global creature suggest sentience, no previous attempts at communication have been successful. Hundreds of theories have attempted to account for this blob, but each is flawed. At the time of the story, an illegal dose of X rays has caused the mass to express itself in a new way. Reaching into the minds of the station’s occupants, it has created, out of neutrinos, perfect replicas of remembered or imagined people. Although these models, called phi-creatures, are palpable, they are no more intelligible to the crew than any other phenomenon exhibited by Solaris. Although Solaris’ human simulacra are destroyed at the story’s end, neither they nor the planet itself is understood.
Rheya, the most important of the phi-creatures. Rheya is an almost perfect duplicate of Kris’s girlfriend, who was nineteen years old when she committed suicide ten years before the time of the novel. She has no self-consciousness of her own artificiality and differs mentally from the original woman only in her knowledge of some facts she should not know and in an undeniable compulsion to stay in Kris’s proximity. Physically, she is exactly the same, except at the subatomic level: Because she is composed of neutrinos, she heals rapidly. As she gradually comes to understand that she is not who she thinks she is, she, like the original, attempts suicide. This effort fails, but with the help of two other scientists, she is able to dissolve herself and leave a suicide note that unintentionally parodies that of the original.
Snow, called Ratface, a cybernetics expert and Gibarian’s deputy. Drunk and half mad from his recent experiences on Solaris, Snow tries to help Kelvin understand the situation without appearing to be crazy. His mental struggles have left him haggard, gray, and sunken. He is reticent and only semifunctional. He understands the situation to some degree and aids Kelvin.
Sartorius, the most reclusive and yet insistently professional scientist at the station. Tall, thin, and distracted, Sartorius attempts, despite his own phi-creature, to maintain the scientific method. It is largely through his efforts that the scientists attempt direct communication with Solaris, and it is...
(This entire section contains 674 words.)
he who develops the antineutrino device that dissolves the replicas, including Rheya.
Gibarian, Kelvin’s former teacher. At the story’s start, Gibarian has just committed suicide because of his inability to deal with the Solaris projections. He is still active in the narrative, however, through Kelvin’s memories, through his publications, and, finally, in an embodiment that may be a dream or another phi-creature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466
At the beginning of the novel Kris Kelvin is a confident and capable scientist who comes to Solaris convinced that he knows everything about the planet that can be known through existing knowledge and technology. In the chaos which he encounters in the station, he stands in contrast to Snow and Sartorius, who clearly have become unhinged by their experience. Kelvin’s devotion to the rational ideals of science is so great that when he proves that the visitors exist, he almost wishes that, instead, he had found that he was merely insane.
By the end of the novel Kelvin has achieved an essentially tragic wisdom. For too long, he had managed to conceal his responsibility for Rheya’s suicide even from himself, repressing his own emotions, which she embodied. Ironically, one of his specialties is psychology, but his knowledge of the human mind does not equip him for what he encounters on Solaris. He has lived since Rheya’s death with a deep sense of guilt which he has submerged along with his own emotions. The ocean brings this out and gives it shape in the form of the Phi-creature “Rheya.” Kelvin’s relationship to this creature is, in this sense, that of the conscious, rational mind to the unconscious mind. Just as Kelvin, in a sense, killed his wife, Rheya, so he kills the first Rheya sent to him by the ocean, and the suicide of his wife is repeated in the suicide of the second Rheya. The effect of this confrontation is his realization of the value of the emotional side of human existence.
Sartorius is essentially invisible in the novel because he remains in his quarters, apparently unwilling to permit his colleagues to see his “visitor.” Snow keeps his visitor in a locker when Kelvin visits his quarters, and it seems even more ominous because it is never seen. Snow himself is a proponent of the idea of “Contact,” that is, of human encounter with an alien intelligence, but he also seems to recognize that no such contact is possible.
In a sense, the most important character in the novel is the “ocean” itself, although it cannot be characterized. Indeed, that it cannot be known is the point of the novel. From one point of view it is a malign being playing tricks on its human visitors. Snow suggests that it may only be a courteous host, who gives the Phi-creatures to its guests as “presents.” From another view it is almost divine, an omnipotent god who can give or take from humans as it wishes. In any case, the ocean can only be defined in terms of human knowledge, and this dilemma of the essentially anthropomorphic limitations of all definitions of alien reality is the heart of Stanisaw Lem’s theme.