The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Researcher Kris Kelvin arrives on Solaris, a planet covered by a mysterious—and possibly intelligent—plasma-ocean-entity, only to find the facilities of the research base untended and in a state of disrepair. Kelvin searches the station and discovers Dr. Snow, a drunken, distracted base worker whose utterances and behavior indicate that the entire crew has become unstable. The station commander, Gibarian, has committed suicide.

During his initial investigation of the facility, Kelvin feels as though he is being watched and hears movement nearby when nothing apparently is there. These eerie sensations become concrete encounters as Kelvin begins to discover the cause of the crew’s mental distraction: They are being plagued by visits from alien simulacra, pseudo-beings that are extrusions of Solaris’ living ocean.

Kelvin attempts to contact another surviving crew member, Dr. Sartorius, who refuses to let Kelvin enter his rooms. Only under duress does he concede to come out. It becomes obvious to Kelvin that Sartorius, who is extremely agitated, is concealing the presence of some other being in his quarters.

The next day, Kelvin discovers that he has a visitor of his own, a simulacra in the shape of a woman he used to love. This simulacra appears and behaves exactly as he remembers Rheya, but she is unaware of her alien origins. Kelvin, distracted and disturbed by her presence, lures her into a launch capsule and deposits her...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Solaris. Fictional planet in a distant star system on which the entire novel is set. A planet in a binary stellar system (one with two suns), Solaris has a highly unstable orbit that may be related to the complex gravitational forces of a binary star but which also seems to be effected by the mysterious living ocean that covers most of the planet. In the future period in which the novel is set, humans have reached this mysterious world and established a small experimental base on it. On the planet, the humans come under the influence of Solaris’s living ocean.

The name “Solaris” invokes the name of the sun that is the source of life-giving warmth to Earth. As such, it can also be seen as a pun on “son,” since much of the novel’s action is psychological in nature, dealing as it does with human sexual drives and erotic guilt, albeit in complex, symbolic ways. Thus, the planet Solaris can be seen as a place where humanity is forced to confront the dark side of its own psychology.

Solarian ocean

Solarian ocean. Body of water that covers the entire surface of Solaris. This mysterious body of colloidal fluid is both a geographical feature and a major character of the novel. It is apparently intelligent at some level, and is believed by some humans to cause the peculiar perturbations in the planet’s orbit, rather like an extreme version of the “Gaia hypothesis,” which suggests that the totality of life on Earth works together to preserve conditions suitable for life to continue.

This living ocean...

(The entire section is 649 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Csisery-Ronay, Istvan. “The Book Is the Alien: On Certain and Uncertain Readings of Stanisaw Lem’s Solaris.” Science-Fiction Studies 12, no. 1 (March, 1985): 6-21. A consideration of the “hermetic ambiguity” of a situation in which contact with the alien has been achieved and yet remains impossible.

Science-Fiction Studies 13, no. 3 (November, 1986). An entire issue devoted to consideration of Lem’s work, including editorial materials and several papers that include consideration of Solaris.

Suvin, Darko. “The Open-Ended Parables of Stanisaw Lem and Solaris.” In Solaris by Stanisaw Lem, translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. New York: Walker, 1970. The afterword provides a general introduction to Lem’s work, including an annotated bibliography. Relates Solaris to the main traditions of speculative fiction.

Yossef, Abraham. “Understanding Lem: Solaris Revisited.” Foundation, no. 46 (Autumn, 1989): 51-57. Considers the significance of the names given to the characters and the relationship of certain ideas in the text to Judaic theology.

Ziegfeld, Richard E. Stanisaw Lem. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. A general account of the philosophical themes in Lem’s work.