Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Solaris may be understood, in part, as an expression of Lem’s basic criticism of the science-fiction genre. Lem is convinced that if alien worlds truly are alien they cannot be known or understood in terms of human preconceptions. The predicament of the Solarian scientists, in other words, is that of science-fiction writers, whom Lem accuses of denying the existence of the predicament and thus falsifying the reality they seek to present. In this connection, it is ironic that Lem’s own account of a human encounter with an alien intelligence is presented through the traditional methods of the “realistic” novel. He gives titles to his chapters, he employs conventional methods of characterization, and his plot bears considerable resemblance to that of a detective story. Lem seems deliberately to have chosen these traditional methods in order to demonstrate his basic premise: One can comprehend a new reality only in the terms one already knows.

If Solaris is itself a critique of science fiction as a genre, it also offers an extraordinary example of a complete planetary environment, with its own nonterres trial phenomena and its own science for explaining those phenomena. Solaris is a paramount example of science fiction. The circumstances it describes are based upon Lem’s virtually total scientific understanding of the novel’s scene.