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...
(The entire section is 970 words.)