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.