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Prior to his departure from the planet, Kelvin leaves the station and visits one of Solaris’ island-sized oceanic extrusions, determined to have his first direct contact with the living plasma in its natural state. For a while, the ocean-being seems to “interact” with Kelvin, but it then abandons the game, as inscrutable at the last as it was in the beginning. This image restates the basic motif of the narrative: the friction between human desires to establish contact with other minds and the ultimate futility of such attempts. Taken as a story of first contact with an alien intelligence, Stanisaw Lem’s tale presents a tantalizing array of enigmas: Are the Phi-creatures instruments of torture or gifts? Are they invitations to communication or merely animate constructs created by some nonsentient reflex of the plasma-ocean? Does the “being” that is Solaris have a mind to be reached or not? Would a human recognize it as such if that contact were established?

This overt theme of alien contact can also be read as an allegory for human relations and epistemology. Kelvin and his coworkers try to make contact with one another, to communicate and share experiences, fears, and observations, but their success is, at best, limited. They too ultimately remain strangers to one another, and even to themselves. These frustrated attempts at contact frame Lem’s sardonic recounting of the scientific history of “Solaristics”—the study of Solaris and its plasma-ocean. Human idealism and folly collide, merge, and become indistinguishable as Lem parodies contemporary factionalism in the sciences, academic posturing, and the elusive, uncertain quality of what humans call knowledge. Ultimately, the metamorphic qualities of Solaris’ enigmatic ocean-entity become symbolic of the mutability of reality itself and the indefinite nature of human experience.

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Critical Context