Nataliya's Reviews > Solaris

Solaris by Stanisław Lem
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Apr 12, 12

bookshelves: 2012-reads, excellent-reads, i-also-saw-the-film, location-is-the-true-protagonist
Read from January 27 to 28, 2012

Many sci-fi authors think that they write about aliens. The truth is, they really don't. Instead, they essentially write about humans. Most sci-fi aliens are little more than an allegory for humanity, a mirror through which we can see ourselves - maybe slightly different-looking, with more (or fewer) appendages, different senses, funny names, different social structures - but still unmistakably human.

And so, when we think of aliens as shown in popular literature/ cinematography, 99% of us will imagine these ...
... ..............

... rather than this...
description

Whichever way the sci-fi aliens are described, there is always something about them that we can relate to. Basically, it serves the age-old purpose of self-insertion of a reader into a book. (*)
* This is the same excuse that Hollywood gives any time it wants to show us a society different from ours and inevitably sticks a "relatable" protagonist there - usually a macho white guy.
That's when Lem strikes with his unusual and brainy unconventional sci-fi story. He takes the long-standing dream of establishing contact with aliens and turns the concept completely around. His planet-sized (possibly) living ocean is so ... well... alien that there is no way humans can comprehend or relate to its vast alienness.

Even worse, the ocean does not seem interested. See, one of the worst things you can do to people is not care, ignore them. As a species, we crave attention and recognition. But, unlike the aliens of our space dreams that may love us or hate us or despise us, the Ocean of Solaris does not seem to particularly care. Which sends humans into a frenzy leading to volumes of scientific research. Does it not understand us? Does it not care? is it primitive? Is it unbelievably advanced? What's the deal? Are we nothing but annoyance to it, ants crawling on its surface? Is it even alive? As a matter of fact, what is "alive"?

What I think is fascinating about this story is that we never get answers. The ocean remains there, vast and alien, with its secrets unrevealed. All we have is speculation and childlike wonder. And failure to comprehend why it seems to torture humans that study it, sending them living ghosts from their past - in case of psychologist Kris Kelvin, his long-dead wife Harey Rheya (not sure why the name was changed in the translation). Why? We don't know. The beauty and the power of this book is that we will never know. Some things are just not for us to understand. What makes us human is that we will keep trying.

The movies based on this book - a beautiful Tarkovsky version and that other one with George Clooney - seemed to focus more on the human characters, which is natural. But to me this will always remain an brilliant, albeit a little dry story of a mysterious and alien ocean which may or may not be alive and may or may not even care.
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Reading Progress

01/28/2012 page 30
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 52) (52 new)


message 1: by Tatiana (last edited Mar 14, 2012 06:33PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tatiana That Clooney movie was truly a shame. (He shows his backside in it though... that's a plus I guess)


Nataliya Oh, that Clooney movie... It was horrible Hollywood. Clooney's backside was the only redeeming feature ;) I wish they called it something else and did not tarnish Lem's name by association with that mess. Did you see Tarkovsky's version? It is much better, although Lem himself was not a fan.


Tatiana Nataliya wrote: "Oh, that Clooney movie... It was horrible Hollywood. Clooney's backside was the only redeeming feature ;) I wish they called it something else and did not tarnish Lem's name by association with tha..."

I liked Tarkovsky's version. It's been awhile since I both read and watched Solaris, but I've always liked the movie.


message 4: by Cbj (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cbj I thought the book was very eerie and thrilling compared to the movies which were contemplative.


Nataliya Hmmmm, I never thought of this book as thrilling. I thought it was beautifully detached and cerebral. But I guess my definition of thrilling is different from yours. I did think it was engaging despite the detachment. As for the movies, I thought Tarkovsky's version captured the book's soul but not it's mind, so to speak. I can't say much about that Clooney flick, it did not touch me in any way.


Whispers from the Pirate's Ghost Whisper Wonderful Review, Nataliya. You are so right. In Sci-fi (or fantasy and horror) the monsters, aliens and different races (elf, dwarf etc.) are really just mirrors of humans. It's sometimes easier to tell the truth about how human's act, with fictitious characters than tell some to their face that they are acting like an Orc...or in this case, E.T.

I'm glad that there are some exceptions to this. Isn't this also the same thing as assigning personalities to dogs?

Thanks for the review.


Jeffrey Keeten Great Review! One of my favorites from you.


message 8: by Candiss (new) - added it

Candiss his long-dead wife Harey Rheya (not sure why the name was changed in the translation)
I will venture a guess that it is because her original name resembles and looks as if it would be pronounced like "hairy" in English, which would presumably be an unflattering connotation. (I realize the Polish pronunciation of the name may very well be quite different.)

Wonderful review! I completely agree about alien races usually being portrayed as practically human. It seems to me that authors and film-makers often just take one aspect of facet of human belief or custom or quirk and focus on that, such as aliens are are hyper-focused on commerce or a race that is comparatively sexually libertine. Most alien (and fantasy) races seem mostly like convenient vehicles for commentary or comparison of traits or cultural biases.

To paraphrase the Pogo quote: "We have met the enemy alien, and he is us."


message 9: by Sarah (new)

Sarah I'd argue against "Many sci-fi authors think that they write about aliens. The truth is, they really don't. Instead, they essentially write about humans."

I'm pretty sure most of my favorite SF authors don't think they're writing about aliens, or at least don't only think they are writing about aliens. For example, Left Hand of Darkness discusses our own ideas of gender by placing a human among the differently-gendered natives of Winter.
So I'm agreeing with your idea that many authors are essentially writing about humans, but disagreeing if you think it wasn't their intent.

Great review, either way!


Nataliya Sarah, I'm sure most of the sci-fi writers indeed intend to use their aliens as an allegory for humans, no argument about that. I just wish more of them would deviate from the traditional approach of making the aliens just like humans in everything besides (sometimes) appearance, intentionally or not - since that's not the only way of highlighting human issues and human nature. That's why I find Lem's approach so refreshing - revealing so much about human nature through the contrast with such an alien ...ummmm... creature(?) as the Ocean.

By the way, I am yet to read Left Hand of Darkness. It's been staring at me accusingly from my coffee table, silently complaining about remaining unread despite being rescued from the Goodwill quite a few weeks ago.


message 11: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Left Hand of Darkness took me twenty years and about twelve tries. I took it out of the library every summer from the time I was fourteen on, read one page, decided I wasn't in the mood, and returned it. I don't know what my problem was. When I finally sat down and read a whole chapter instead of just a page, I was hooked. Absolutely loved it.


message 12: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy Ok I will read Solaris if you try to read Left Hand of Darkness. Please, it is so wonderful. I reread it a few months ago (first read it when I was around 20) and it is so wonderful. I hope you like it. This is a wonderful review by the way.


Nataliya Tracy wrote: "Ok I will read Solaris if you try to read Left Hand of Darkness. Please, it is so wonderful. I reread it a few months ago (first read it when I was around 20) and it is so wonderful. I hope you lik..."

Okay, we have a deal then. I will start "Left Hand of Darkness" this weekend, after I finish " Perdido Street Station". By now I actually want to see what the fuss is all about :)


message 14: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy ok I will try to find a copy of Solaris!! Oh and I want to read Perdido Street Station too!! Too many books not enough time!


message 15: by Gertie (new)

Gertie I like the idea of people saying "you read this if I'll read that". It would be fun to get a random friend to do that with, just choosing a book for someone else to read.


Nataliya Gertie wrote: "I like the idea of people saying "you read this if I'll read that". It would be fun to get a random friend to do that with, just choosing a book for someone else to read."

I'm game for that if you are ;)


message 17: by Gertie (new)

Gertie Hmmm, should it be a book you think the other person would like, or a book that expands their horizons?


Nataliya Gertie wrote: "Hmmm, should it be a book you think the other person would like, or a book that expands their horizons?"

Either is fine. Ideally, a combination of both.


message 19: by Gertie (last edited Apr 12, 2012 10:03AM) (new)

Gertie I just took a look at your bookshelf... I think I had better try this first with someone whose personality I know better. Maybe after seeing some more of your reviews I'll get a better sense of what would be a good book choice.

I hope you like Left Hand of Darkness. It's considered a classic, but it didn't strike the chord with me that it has with some.


message 20: by Gertie (new)

Gertie Put a Facebook challenge up and five of my friends are in; I'll try to let you know how it goes. If it goes well it'll be worth a try here on Goodreads as well, with people we haven't even met in person. Could be a good way to get to know people better, should be fun. :-)


Nataliya Gertie wrote: "Put a Facebook challenge up and five of my friends are in; I'll try to let you know how it goes. If it goes well it'll be worth a try here on Goodreads as well, with people we haven't even met in p..."

I'll be waiting to see how this experiment pans out. Definitely seems like fun.


message 22: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy It does seem like Finn. I'm off to Europe today. Gotta download Solaris before I go.


message 23: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy Oh bother. I posted that by mistake. Stupid iPhone. I meant that sounds like fun!


Nataliya Tracy wrote: "It does seem like Finn. I'm off to Europe today. Gotta download Solaris before I go."

Tracy, I hope you like it. I'm starting "The Left Hand of Darkness" today.


Shovelmonkey1 I got this in the post via bookcrossing this morning! Hurrah!


Nataliya Shovelmonkey1 wrote: "I got this in the post via bookcrossing this morning! Hurrah!"

I really hope you'll like it!


Nataliya Tracy wrote: "Ok I will read Solaris if you try to read Left Hand of Darkness. Please, it is so wonderful. I reread it a few months ago (first read it when I was around 20) and it is so wonderful. I hope you lik..."

Tracy, thanks so much for getting me to read "The Left Hand of Darkness"! I absolutely loved it.


message 28: by Tfitoby (new) - added it

Tfitoby I loved the George Clooney movie. But then I haven't seen the Tarkovsky one or read the book and I'm an unashamed fan of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney.


Nataliya Tfitoby wrote: "I loved the George Clooney movie. But then I haven't seen the Tarkovsky one or read the book and I'm an unashamed fan of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney."

You should see the Tarkovsky movie! It was good, quite melancholic, actually. I thought it captured the spirit of the book quite well. Maybe I should give the Clooney movie another chance.


message 30: by Tfitoby (new) - added it

Tfitoby I know, I know. I do love world cinema and hear many good things about Tarkovsky in general but it's quite hard to find and my enthusiasm for sitting down in front of a near 3 hour Russian movie will take some ramping up.

The Soderbergh movie is beautiful, one of my favourites from his career; yes it's slow and even has some "action" sequences but he creates so much mood with his mise-en-scene that I can't help but be in awe of him as a filmmaker.


Nataliya Okay, now I think I'm ready to give that movie another chance. Maybe I was too wrapped up in comparing it to the Tarkovsky version which I saw first and absolutely adored at the time. Maybe I was just biased before I even saw the Clooney one. I will watch it with an open mind this time.


message 32: by Tfitoby (new) - added it

Tfitoby Back in my youthful days when first discovering foreign cinema I disliked the American one for being a remake before I knew anything about either version or the novel so I can definitely understand where you're coming from as a fan of the original. I hope you enjoy it this time but don't come blaming me if you still hate it!


Nataliya Same goes if you ever see the Tarkovsky version and dislike it! ;)


message 34: by [Name Redacted By Goodreads Because Irrelevant to Review] (last edited Jul 21, 2012 10:43PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

[Name Redacted By Goodreads Because Irrelevant to Review] For what it's worth, I'm with Lem. Tarkovsky's version...yeesh. The hours upon hours of driving.

And I actually enjoyed the American version for its focus on character and emotion, and for its relatively understated approach. Tarkovsky's was too long, the Clooney version was too short -- together they're almost a complete film. :P

The worst version however is definitely "Event Horizon" (featuring the wonderful Sam Neill), which fails horribly as an adaptation of Lem's novel, but is actually a fairly effective horror-sci-fi combo if you can ignore its debt to Lem.


message 35: by Tfitoby (new) - added it

Tfitoby Wait...Event Horizon was from the same source material? I don't think I would ever have guessed that.


Nataliya Well, Lem's book was not that focused on character or emotion, which is why I think it never attained the same levels of popularity as other sci-fi works. I think it'd be very hard to make a film that is faithful to Lem's book - so much of it is just not suited for the screen.


[Name Redacted By Goodreads Because Irrelevant to Review] Yep, "Event Horizon" was an adaptation of "Solaris". Now THAT was a Hollywood-ized version!

And Lem's definitely more about the concept than the characters, which I suspect is why the Clooney version works as a character-based film. They took it in a different direction. Arguably, so did Tarkovsky. And, unfortunately, so did the makers of "Event Horizon". I remember Kapek's novels being the same way, so maybe it's something to do with how sci-fi manifests East of the Alps?


message 38: by Art (new) - rated it 5 stars

Art The humans were not being ignored. The whole story was about what happens to the humans when Solaris tries to communicate with them. The manifestations of the crews dead relatives were generated by the ocean in order to make contact. The unfortunate side affect was that it drove most of the crew insane.


Nataliya Art wrote: "The humans were not being ignored. The whole story was about what happens to the humans when Solaris tries to communicate with them. The manifestations of the crews dead relatives were generated by..."

I'm not quite sure about that. I don't think we can be so certain that the ocean was trying to make any sort of contact. For all we know, the ocean has not even noticed that the humans were there - and we don't even know whether it's even capable of noticing anything, and us in particular.


message 40: by [Name Redacted By Goodreads Because Irrelevant to Review] (last edited Sep 07, 2012 02:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

[Name Redacted By Goodreads Because Irrelevant to Review] I'm inclined to agree with Nataliya. The human observers conclude that those manifestations are evidence of Solaris trying to communicate with them, but that's because we humans love to anthropomorphize. That's a constant theme in Lem's work -- like in His Master's Voice. They might just as likely be unconscious or subconscious reactions to the external stimuli which the humans provide -- they might even be perfectly "natural" reactions without any consciousness behind them, which are misinterpreted as evidence of consciousness by the human observers.


rameau Brilliant review, but you read it so differently than I did.


message 42: by Art (last edited May 03, 2013 07:31PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Art Solaris did notice the humans there and was trying to communicate somehow. For example, they are reviewing earlier transcripts of interactions with Solaris. The interviewee is describing what he saw from the cockpit of a craft skimming over the ocean of Solaris, as follows:

While I was still some distance away, I noticed a pale, almost white, object floating on the surface. My first thought was that it was Fechner's flying-suit, especially as it looked vaguely human in form. I brought the aircraft round sharply, afraid of losing my way and being unable to find the same spot again. The shape, the body, was moving; sometimes it seemed to be standing upright in the trough of the waves. I accelerated and went down so low that the machine bounced gently. I must have hit the crest of a huge wave I was overflying. The body - yes, it was a human body, not an atmosphere-suit - the body was moving.
QUESTION: Did you see its face?
BERTON: Yes.
QUESTION: Who was it?
BERTON: A child.
QUESTION: What child? Did you recognize it?
BERTON: No. At any rate, I don't remember having seen it before. Besides, when I got closer - when I was forty yards away, or even sooner - I realized that it was no ordinary child.
QUESTION: What do you mean?
BERTON: I'll explain. At first, I couldn't understand what worried me about it; it was only after a minute or two that I realized: this child was extraordinarily large. Enormous, in fact. Stretched out horizontally, its body rose twelve feet above the surface of the ocean, I swear. I remembered that when I touched the wave, its face was a little higher than mine, even though my cockpit must have been at least ten feet above the ocean.
QUESTION: If it was as big as that, what makes you say it was a child?
BERTON: Because it was a tiny child.
QUESTION: Do you realize, Berton, that your answer doesn't make sense?
BERTON: On the contrary. I could see its face, and it was a very young child. Besides, its proportions corresponded exactly to the proportions of a child's body. It was a . . . babe in arms. No, I exaggerate. It was probably two or three years old. It had black hair and blue eyes - enormous blue eyes! It was naked - completely naked - like a newborn baby. It was wet, or I should say glossy; its skin was shiny. I was shattered. I no longer thought it was a mirage. I could see this child so distinctly. It rose and fell with the waves; but apart from this general motion, it was making other movements, and they were horrible!

It is evident that Solaris could read the minds of the humans and could duplicate the images albeit in imprecisely and with strange results.


Nataliya Art wrote: "It is evident that Solaris could read the minds of the humans and could duplicate the images albeit in imprecisely and with strange results."

But does that necessarily mean an attempt at communication - purposeful communication that we would want to have with an alien life form - or can it be just random, just a reflection of something around it (us), without any actual attempt at communication and interaction? Humans seem to want to interpret as communication, but is there a way to know?


message 44: by Brian (new)

Brian Love this review. Brava, Nataliya.


Nataliya Brian wrote: "Love this review. Brava, Nataliya."

Thanks, Brian!


message 46: by Art (last edited May 09, 2013 01:17PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Art Nataliya wrote: "But does that necessarily mean an attempt at communication - purposeful communication that we would want to have with an alien life form - or can it be just random, just a reflection of something around it (us), without any actual attempt at communication and interaction? Humans seem to want to interpret as communication, but is there a way to know? "

I guess that is one of the questions left open for us to ponder. That Solaris tried to stop the aircraft with an image of a child when it could not see into the aircraft makes me think so! If the image was of the pilot I would agree with your statement.

Also, this novel reminds me in a way of "Rendezvous With Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke. The earthlings came, they explored Rama, and then left without anything answered leaving the reader to always ponder what they just read and what it was all about! That 52 years after it was published and people are still debating it's contents is a testament to its power!

Great discussion!


message 47: by Joseph (new) - added it

Joseph You made me want to read this book ... Thanks


message 48: by naught101 (new) - added it

naught101 Nice write-up. Terry Pratchett also has a living ocean in his book 'Strata', and Peter Watts' 'Blindsight' has some very alien aliens.


Fanta Chico You are absolutely right that Lem did not reveal why the Ocean-planet acts towards humans as it does. Or does it act at all. But, there remains a question why of all possible solutions for human-alien interaction Lem decided to go for dead as vehicles...


Nente By the way, this is not the only Lem story which has really alien aliens, with no possibility of understanding. "Fiasko" also comes to mind, but unless you are a really big Lem fan, you probably shouldn't try that...


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