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 in orbit until he determines what to do next.
Kelvin once again talks with Snow, who reveals that each crewperson has his or her own visiting simulacrum and that each simulacrum is the re-creation of a troubling individual from the crewperson’s past. Snow also reveals that these pseudo-beings regenerate very quickly and, if destroyed, are reproduced shortly afterward.
Snow’s claims are confirmed by the arrival of a new pseudo-Rheya. Kelvin struggles with his reaction toward her, which combines fear and loathing with genuine affection. He conducts research into her basic physiology and shares his results with Snow and Sartorius. What Snow calls the “Phi-creatures” are not composed of normal cellular matter but instead are accretions of neutrinos that mimic human physiological structures and metabolic processes. In order to rid themselves of the unwanted visitors, the three scientists contemplate using energy emissions to break down the Phi-creatures’ neutrino structure; they also consider sending signals that match Kelvin’s thought patterns into the ocean directly, in the hope that this might lead to the establishment of a more manageable form of contact with the ocean entity. Before either of these options can be attempted, Rheya, confused and horrified regarding her own inexplicable origins, attempts suicide but discovers that she cannot carry it out successfully because her capacity for physical regeneration prevents her from dying.
In a subsequent meeting with Snow, Kelvin is forced to admit that, despite the growing individuality of the new Rheya, their relationship ultimately is untenable. The scientists attempt to communicate with the plasma-ocean by projecting amplified brainwave emissions into its depths, but weeks pass without result. The humans become increasingly solitary and erratic in behavior. Kelvin convinces himself that he plans to leave the station with Rheya, but she and Snow both realize that he is deluding himself. Rheya’s growing misery leads her to request that Snow and Sartorius destroy her with a device capable of discorporating the Phi-creatures. Upon learning of Rheya’s successful suicide, Kelvin rages first at Snow, then at the plasma-ocean. The visits by the Phi-creatures come to an end, and Kelvin leaves Solaris, more understanding of his own nature but also more cynical.
Solaris. Fictional planet in...
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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. 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 is also the probable source of the mysterious Phi-creatures, beings that resemble their human counterparts so closely that only microscopic examination can distinguish them. The Phi-creatures appear to be intermediaries, an attempt by the ocean to create an interface through which it can communicate with the humans that have come to its planet. However, there is no known communication channel between the Phi-creatures and the ocean, so these attempts at communication ultimately prove fruitless.
Prometheus. Spaceship on which protagonist Kris Kelvin arrives on Solaris. While most American science fiction writers of the 1960’s would have lavished upon readers detailed descriptions of the physical hardware of their spaceships, Lem keeps the technological details spare, a minimum necessary to create the impression of an interstellar vessel. As in the rest of the novel, the thrust is primarily philosophical, and the classical reference of the ship’s name is significant. In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus was renowned for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans, who had been denied such natural defenses as sharp teeth and claws. However, that act led to Prometheus’s being chained to a rock, where his liver was gnawed by a vulture as punishment. Thus Prometheus was an ambivalent figure, symbolizing both enlightenment and condemnation, civilization and punishment. Similarly, the spaceship Prometheus is both a technological triumph and the instrument by which Kelvin is delivered to psychological torment.
Research station. Human research base on Solaris that floats at an altitude of from five yards to nearly a mile above the ocean. It is maintained by gravitors, a kind of gravity-control device. The station can be thrust well into the planet’s stratosphere at the first hint of upheavals in the planetary ocean, such as one that took the lives of 106 people some years earlier.
The station is a bit of earthly environment brought to this alien world, within which the human researchers live. As such it can be seen as a sort of womb, even a mother figure. At the same time, it is also symbolic of the idea that the explorers come to a distant world thinking that they are trying to learn about an alien world, when in fact they are attempting to impose upon it earthly certainties and expectations.
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.