John Wiswell's Reviews > Solaris: The Definitive Edition

Solaris by Stanisław Lem
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Nov 28, 2011

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Read from November 21 to 26, 2011

While I’ve read the old Polish-to-French-to-English translation, I knew it wasn’t reliable. This review is primarily about the Audible release that was allegedly the first direct translation from the original Polish to English. In either edition, though, I have no confidence that Lem’s prose style has necessarily been preserved.

The concern exists in minor and major cases: this translator deliberately points out things we could infer, like that the books we know the names of are alphabetized, while another leaves it out. Just as easily, many of the conversations in both editions are so blunt as to sound unlike anybody would actually have them. This is a touchier subject in a book like Solaris than in most novels, because the story is about communication. Earthlings have found a living ocean and are struggling to comprehend or converse with it, and the only response seems to be it inducing visions of their own memories, which in the novella exist primarily as conversations with dead loved ones. How Lem actually made them talk, and how his pages upon pages of exposition on how the sciences analyzed this creature, is paramount to the quality of the book. If his language was anything but sharp, the whole exercise would be shoddy. At least for the Audible release, the novella seems more ambitious than excellent.

Late in the novella there is a passage that criticizes interest in the living ocean of Solaris at all. It aggressively rips into anyone who desires communication as secretly and ashamedly religious, of being intellectual cowards and generally foolish, and of wasting time and money that belongs elsewhere. Beyond how the narrator reads the audio edition, the translated text itself reads very bitter and sure of itself. It could be the author condemning such skeptics as cruel or willfully myopic, in their refusal to see things in other ways, or it could be a representation of academic skepticism, or it could be playing against the themes we’ve seen in the book thus far. But is any of that in the original Polish text? You don’t know, and without extensive footnoting or author notes, you can’t know. This is incredibly frustrating when you’re dealing with a book that is itself so tenuously built on its use of language.

That foundation would be one of Solaris’s greatest flaws regardless of how it was executed. The novella has two sorts of scenes: expository passages, and passages where people talk about conflicts. We never watch much behavior or action. Structurally this is classic SciFi, but also quite weak writing. We experience very little of what any character goes through, instead being relegated to hearing about it. It’s the sort of passive narrative that’s too common in Hard Science Fiction. It’s unsurprising to read interviews with Lem where he espoused primarily being interested in the notion of the being, rather than the story about it.

So we have this wild ocean that might be sentient in some way. We know that it’s so alien that it can’t be anthropomorphized successfully. Perhaps it’s Lem’s fascination with writing something truly alien that prevents him from having the characters directly interact with that ocean, going down to the planet and behaving around it. If they did, they’d project intention and perhaps break up his ambitious theme. It is unfortunate that the novella’s answer is to set itself near such a fantastic thing, without any direct experience of it.

In this absence, Solaris becomes a little like a great ghost story. Our main scientist is bombarded with experiences of his dead wife. Faced with the incapacity to comprehend the living ocean, he becomes more invested in the relationship with her. His own grief colors what he actually sees and hears, and her illusion grows so strongly that she is struck by an existential crisis over whether to continue existing, or to commit suicide again. This is poignant, and a deeply human reaction to the clinical scientific approach. Stripped from the novella, it would make a dynamite short story that would eclipse any of Clarke or Asimov’s wildest creations.

It would have to be stripped, though, from the hulk of a passive novella. It’s not as though the novella is so packed with action and vital insight that it can’t afford more scenes of action or interaction. There’s space enough for my least favorite kind of scene in all modern film and fiction: that one where a character turns to another and asks, “Do you believe in God?” To date, this scene has felt relevant to perhaps three out of a eighty pieces of fiction, and this novella isn’t one of the three cases. When characters are discussing sub-Freshman theology, and pretty clearly serving as mouthpieces for their author, and as mouthpieces on matters unnecessary to their plot, it’s pretty much unforgivable. Lem writing this decades ahead of the curve doesn’t absolve anything, for he does nothing unusual with the premise. They don’t even really cast their God-chat in light of the ocean’s cognition. It’s just poor philosophy cast in weariness, of which I’m wearier than any character is of its existence.

For the Audible release, they acquired Battlestar Galactica actor Alessandro Juliani to narrate. Juliani overacts from the first chapter on, including making characters who are described as sounding “almost calm” instead sound entirely manic. The aggressive voice he adopts works for the protagonist’s introspection, but grates over several hours. He can’t escape the text of the book. It’s worth reading or hearing in whatever edition you can find to scale such an ambitious attempt at writing about non-human sentience, especially if you are a student of Speculative Fiction, but remains a flawed experiment.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Christine Pugh Hello :) I read the 1970s translation, as you say you have done, and I didn't find that the long expository passage at the end strongly condemned those seeking communication. It was more descriptive of different schools (and I think an attempt to introduce the religious elements, but I didn't think that it called them foolish intellectual cowards or ripped into them.) Did you find the condemnation was stronger in this passage in the Audiobook than in the earlier translation?

John Wiswell Christine wrote: "Hello :) I read the 1970s translation, as you say you have done, and I didn't find that the long expository passage at the end strongly condemned those seeking communication. It was more descriptiv..."

To be honest, Christine, I don't remember if it was much stronger in the first version I read. My gut reaction is that it was too similar to have much difference, but I could easily be wrong.

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