Speculative fiction loves its aliens. Whether they’re used for social commentary or to push the limits of human imaginations, they often deserve a stage all to themselves, in stories that focus primarily on aliens and alien cultures. Whether trying to comprehend an alien language (as in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life), or physically traveling into the unknown (like the characters in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), story conflict can be driven from an encounter with the “other”—and imagining a unique, plausible alien can be a thought exercise in itself. Consider John W. Campbell’s famous dictum on alien creation, which challenged authors to “write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.”
But can a human ever truly understand an alien? To explore the intricacies and complexities of this key question, science fiction needs novels like 1961’s Solaris—and Stanislaw Lem was the ideal author to write it. As a physician, his training in science lent an aura of authenticity that sells the reader on the novel’s white lab coat shop talk. But as a polymath who was also interested in philosophy, Lem is capable of taking the reader to a mental plane beyond the basic narrative. By the end, you’re left asking yourself how well humans can fully understand each other, or themselves, let alone a being from another world.
“The peculiarity of those phenomena seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity of the Solarian Ocean is beyond the reach of human beings.” –Stanislaw Lem on Solaris
If we had a real-world Starfleet like the one featured in Star Trek and xenobiology was a course taught at the academy, Solaris could be required reading. There’s something almost subversive about a tale centered on highly trained researchers trying and failing to ‘figure out’ the alien. Perhaps young cadets would have much to learn from a story about failure and the reminder that such an undertaking might not be as simple as collecting and cataloguing specimens.
In many ways, Solaris is an anti-novel. Its main character, Kris Kelvin—at times stoic and collected, at times cold and aloof—is more an anti-hero than a typical protagonist. Like many science fiction novels from that era, a compelling concept sits at the heart of the story: confronting or making contact with an alien intelligence. But where other novels might play up the idea of a living, conscious ocean to entertaining effect, Lem deflates our expectations: Instead of concluding with a more conventional or satisfying ending, the reader is left with an anti-climax and anti-resolution.
Solaris, a quintessential novel of science fiction’s New Wave movement, contrasts strongly with the more colorful and optimistic Golden Age that preceded it. The movement challenged the old norms and embraced diversity—including a diversity of concepts. Unlike the often-naïve stories from a happier yesteryear (stories often cynically driven by a fast-paced, industrial pulp market designed to appeal to young males), the New Wave broke the genre by subverting the old conventions.
Unlike more traditional stories that placed scientists on a pedestal and extolled the achievements and possibilities of scientific exploration and experimentation, Lem’s novel is steeped in skepticism about science’s ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe. As the reader explores Solaris, following in the footsteps of previous expeditions to the unusual planet, tension is derived from active denial, frustration, and confusion rather than an antagonistic outside force.
Solaris escapes our attempts at defining, let alone understanding it. It’s a planet, an alien life form, a sentient being—and possibly a metaphor for the unknowable. The very process of assigning it a name or attempting to define it according to various classifications and attributes in many ways eclipses the effort of perceiving it in its truest form.
Before the first ‘solarists’ could understand what Solaris was, these fictional researchers already committed errors in their assumptions and “educated guesses,” however well-intentioned. Solaris exists as a puzzle that’s impossible to solve—a possibility that hadn’t remotely occurred to the surefooted humans determined to crack it. Its inherent unknowability feels uncomfortable to us. But the universe has yet to reveal its mysteries to us and doesn’t exist to serve our whims. Solaris simply exists. The absence of a clear message after so many years of forward-looking, human-centric stories and storytelling conventions feels a bit like a damp squib.
Despite Lem’s background in science, his depiction of the scientific process when applied to something as alien as Solaris is imbued with a sense of cynicism. Some science fiction authors, especially those associated with pulpier traditions, tend to use scientific terms almost as buzzwords to help evoke a rarified atmosphere of high-tech experimentation (i.e., “ion,” “nano,” and “quantum”). These are sometimes used in the appropriate context or are technically accurate, but they’re essentially a tool for SF authors trying to engage a potentially savvy audience. This use of jargon serves as both a rubber stamp and a form of currency in the genre, and Lem could play with along with the best of them. In Solaris, Kris Kelvin uses a neutrino microscope to study a physical sample. “Neutrinos” first entered the scientific vocabulary as a concept in the early 1930s and were first detected only in 1956, so the novel’s use of the term works both in terms of established hard science and as fashionable high-tech jargon. Neutrinos remains a popular subject both in science and science fiction as we’ve learned more about the particles and how they work, but in the world of the novel it simply made both logical and dramatic sense to use an advanced device with an exotic-sounding particle. It’s also, conveniently, a great MacGuffin.
That’s because in spite of their scientific prowess, the many different solarists, penning such works as the articles published in the Solarist Annual and Historia Solaris, seem at times like nothing more than butterfly enthusiasts or stamp collectors. At the limits of their knowledge, all they can do is document mysterious phenomena, building up a never-ending ocean of factoids that fail to solve or shed light upon Solaris’ perennial mysteries. What does mass, weight, or dimension tell us about the human condition? Or morality? Or ethics? Or ourselves, beyond the molecules of which we’re composed? The philosopher Hume said that you cannot derive a normative claim from an objective one—you cannot use deductive reasoning to say what ‘ought’ to be based on what ‘is.’ But there’s no reason to despair and fall off that cliff of nihilism. Hume’s Law reminds us that there are ways of reasoning beyond deductive: inductive, intuitive, modal.
Lem’s Solaris effectively turns his readers into solarists. Like the fictional researchers in his novel, we have been exposed to an experience that is difficult to talk or write about. At times it is eerie, unsettling, and frustrating. Like the solarists sifting through their volumes of lore, we are left, after putting down Lem’s book, wondering about our own Solaris. To what extent can any of us understand one another, or ourselves? Is true understanding even possible? What does understanding imply? What is intelligence? Does knowledge itself have inherent value or is it merely a means to an end? Will a pursuit of knowledge ever satisfy our need to understand, or is it just another ego-driven attempt at grasping the unattainable? Like our protagonist Kris, we can catalogue, dissect, and study the fictional world of Solaris in tiny discrete bits. Or, we can surrender to it, and in accepting the ineffable, enjoy what follows without trying to force it to make sense.
Jonathan E. Hernandez (@jhernandez13) is an author, visual artist, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner, and organizer with the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers. After an honorable discharge from the military, he went back to school to study creative writing and pursue a career better suited to his muse. He lives in Astoria, New York with his partner and a cat named Jonesy.