Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970
Stanisaw Lem’s Solaris is science fiction in the purest possible sense, constituting an elaborate thought experiment in which imaginary science is employed to address fundamental questions of epistemology and human psychology in a disciplined fashion. Solaris is simultaneously preoccupied with the limits of humans’ quest to understand the world in which they find themselves and the limits of their understanding. The ocean of Solaris is a hypothetical test case, bringing both these issues—and the bridge that inevitably connects them—into a dramatic focus that makes up in urgency and ambition what it lacks in clarity and conclusiveness. The English text of Solaris is two steps removed from the original, having been translated from the French rather than the original Polish, but it is unlikely that much has been lost, and there is a sense that the serial metamorphoses involved are appropriate to the substance of the plot.
The elaborate technical discourse employed to describe the peculiar behavior of the ocean of Solaris and the makeup of the phi-beings is itself a simulacrum, since most of its terms are imaginary and those borrowed from physics or biology are employed metaphorically. There is much more, however, in the discourse than mere jargon. The form is more important than the content, because the issue at stake is how people accumulate knowledge and how they test the accuracy of their conclusions. The physics may be fake, but its method is not, and Solaris is primarily concerned with the methods people employ in science and in their personal lives, and the problematic relationships between science and personal lives.
Scientific knowledge is supposed to be objective; its truths are supposed to exist independently of people’s discovery of them. Physicists do, however, acknowledge the significance of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which recognizes that the act of observing phenomena on the smallest scale must of necessity involve a disruptive interference with the phenomena in question. Solaris involves both a magnification and an inversion of this kind of interreaction; the vast living ocean responds to observation by disruptively interfering with its observers. The effect of this disruption is to force the observers to look at themselves as well as the ocean—indeed, to look into themselves, to look at awkward but revealing aspects of their own psychoses that have been suppressed or exorcised from the conscious narratives that compose their life histories and representations of themselves.
Kelvin, as a psychologist, is supposed to be able to bring the methods of science to bear on these kinds of phenomena. He is supposed to be able to catalog them and place them within tentative theoretical frameworks, exactly as the Solarists do with the ocean’s problematic metamorphoses—but it is impossible to be objective in confronting the phenomena of the psyche, where every act of observation is a disruptive reconstruction. Significantly, neither Kelvin nor the reader is ever allowed to learn exactly what kind of manifestations haunt Snow and Sartorius because they refuse to submit their secrets to public scrutiny, not wanting their guilty secrets analyzed and understood by others. Kelvin can only wonder whether the ocean of Solaris is capable of understanding itself or others—and whether, if so, it has the least desire to be understood.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s motion picture version of Solaris is better known than the book, but it is very different from it. The print medium is uniquely suited to the kind of technical discourse that forms the core of the project—and, for that matter, to the kind of pseudoscientific discourse that attempts to complicate the method of science and supplement its revelations, a haunting presence represented in the plot by
(This entire section contains 970 words.)
is better known than the book, but it is very different from it. The print medium is uniquely suited to the kind of technical discourse that forms the core of the project—and, for that matter, to the kind of pseudoscientific discourse that attempts to complicate the method of science and supplement its revelations, a haunting presence represented in the plot byThe Little Apocrypha. In isolating and considerably elaborating the personal aspect of Kelvin’s predicament, the film denudes his problems of their true context; the whole point of Kelvin’s struggle to come to terms with his re-embodied wife is that the struggle is technical and personal at one and the same time—no separation of the two is possible. His painful ambivalence is not the result of mixed feelings about his dead wife—although the fact of the manifestation does, indeed, betray a harmful confusion—but, instead, his ambivalence is an inevitable consequence of a conflict between two very different strategies of understanding.
The dubious resolution of Kelvin’s problem raises one of the central issues concerning the role of science in human affairs. Even an incomplete understanding can give rise to technologies that permit people limited but powerful control over the phenomena under consideration. Even in the absence of a sensible understanding of her production, Rheya can still be obliterated. It is far easier to determine what she is made of than the reason for her existence. The same is true of scientific projects in general; it is possible to figure out what things are made of, but people are not sure that it even makes sense to ask why things exist at all.
Even if such questions are set aside in respect to the universe at large—discarding in the process Kelvin’s speculations about the sickness and the despair of god as empty fantasies—these questions cannot be set aside in regard to people. People have to ask why they have chosen their ways of life, because they could be living some other way if they chose—and they could, like Gibarian, cease to live at all if they could find no reason to live. Kelvin can dispose of the phi-being version of Rheya, but he cannot dispose of the element in his own psyche that provoked her manifestation. That is why, even though he recognizes the folly and futility of endless repetition without transformation, he cannot avoid the hope that the cruel miracle of her return might be reenacted again, and again, and again.