Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

The last time I read Solaris, just a year back actually, I found it extremely tedious. It was specially surprising because I love the film versions a lot, both by Tarkovsky and also by Steven Soderbergh. I was also a little busy with other things at that time so I thought may be I didn't pay too much attention so I thought let's read it again.

I found the book more interesting this time, certainly far from boring or tedious, though still somewhat flawed. The basic events and the plot points are almost the same as the movies. Kris Kelvin, a psychiatrist and an astronaut gets a mysterious call of help from the space station which is studying the planet Solaris and its strange Ocean. When Kelvin reaches the station he finds out that the friend who had sent the message has committed suicide and the other two colleagues are showing strange behaviour related to acute paranoia. Talking to them he learns that the Ocean has the power to create human forms from nothing but the fears and guilt hidden in the deepest psyche of people. He soon finds out that his long dead wife, who had committed suicide in a state of nervous depression, has come back to him. Rest of novel is about his torments as he tries to make sense out of what is happening and also what to do with the apparition.

The main problem with the book is its structure. Actually the story of Kelvin and his wife Rheya takes up only a small part of the novel. The real protagonist of the novel is the Solaris ocean itself. This is where the structural flaw of the novel becomes obvious. The story is told in first person by Kris, so to get the exposition about the Ocean going Lem uses some very silly and ridiculous narrative techniques. Kris on a regular basis finds himself with a book or some collected journals of "Solarist Studies" and uses this occasion to tell us the entire history of how the planet was discovered, about attempts to describe and classify the various parts of the Ocean and to make contacts with it and to study its nature. This is all written in a satiric style, parodying the scientific language. (Somewhat similar to the Island of Lagado section in Gulliver's Travels.) Last time I didn't realize that it was supposed to be funny and I was reading all the mumbo-jumbo about symmetriads, mimoids, phi-structures very seriously. Of course I soon got tired of it. I didn't even realize when Rheya starts reading a copy of "Interplanetary Cookery Book"!

The parody distances us from Kelvin and his story but it drives home the basic point of the book too, which is as one of the characters says about the ways scientists have been studying Solaris, "We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors." This is a question that philosophers have been debating since long, specially in philosophy of science and philosophy of knowledge - the problem of classification and categories. Lem thinks that scientists are rigid in their definitions of categories and the way they classify things like Solaris, they only make fools of themselves in the process. He is basically making a comment about the scientific hubris.

Both the movie versions leave out the intellectualism of the book and accentuate the emotional, love story part of the narrative. The book also captures the mournfulness and despair of Kris's character very well but it is not that effective because of all the surrounding pseudo-science nonsense. Actually as I kept on reading the book I liked the idea that Lem didn't really care for verisimilitude that much and he was willing to go on and on as and when an idea struck him. I think that's what sets this book apart from average science fiction. Lem is not just interested in creating a fantastic but internally self-consistent world, he is more interested in using it as a pretext to explore complex ideas.

I liked this last paragraph of the book:

On the surface, I was calm: in secret, without really admitting it, I was waiting for something. Her return? How could I have been waiting for that? We all know that we are material creatures, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them. The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris, is a lie, useless and not even funny. So must one be resigned to being a clock that measures the passage of time, now out of order, now repaired, and whose mechanism generates despair and love as soon as its maker sets it going? Are we to grow used to the idea that every man relives ancient torments, which are all the more profound because they grow comic with repetition? The human existence should repeat itself, well and good, but that it should repeat itself like a hackneyed tune, or a record a drunkard keeps playing as he feeds coins into the jukebox...[...]And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past

Another extract from the book when Kris and Snow are talking about imperfection of gods and finally trying to understand Solaris in these terms.

"What do you mean by imperfect?" Snow frowned. "In a way all the gods of old religions were imperfect, considering that their attributes were amplified human ones. The God of the Old Testament, for instance, required humble submission and sacrifices, and was jealous of other gods. The Greek gods had fits of sulks and family quarrels, and they were just as imperfect as mortals..."

"No," I interrupted. "I'm not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a...sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems or mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, and which measures his unending defeat."

This is a very well-directed scene from the film by Soderbergh. This is when Kris first encounters Rheya in the space ship. (It has a brief footage of George Clooney's unclothed posterior, just in case!)

The final scene from Tarkovsky's Solaris here. I love the music. It is by Bach but I don't know what it is called.

Also an article in the new york times compares the two movie versions with the book.


tom said...

Solaris also explores one of Lem's favorite themes - that if and when we encounter "alien" life forms there is no way we will be able to communicate with them, any more than we can communicate with crabs or trees right now, and he despised the whole genre of science fiction for the way it glosses over that fundamental problem (for example, Star Trek and its "universal translator"!!), so he also loved to ridicule science fiction itself.

antonia said...

"Sometimes I think that the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."
Calvin & Hobbes

Alok said...

tom: yes, actually that was what baffled me initially when I read the book. It is a very self-conscious parody of a science fiction, specially those related to space travel and its standard tropes and cliches.

antonia: I am trying to find a wittier riposte, will post when I find it!

Udge said...

FWIW: I doubt that the music is by Bach, it's far too atonal and unharmonic. Sounds more like Scriabin to me. Wonderful film, much better than the book in my opinion.

Alok said...

I think I read somewhere that it was by Bach. It does sound like some of his Organ music but I am not sure. I don't know much about Classical music.

Andrew K said...

I confess to giving up half-way through the book, tiring utterly of one of those long tedious descriptions of the clouds or oceans or something of Solaris. Lem complained of Tarkovsky's treatment, but he was fortunate to have his work immortalised through association with a far greater artist.

Alok said...

Yes, I had trouble plodding through all that mumbo-jumbo as well, but once you realize it is a parody and doesn't really mean anything in itself, it is easier to read.

Andrew K said...

That's the trouble with parody, though....admitting it didn't occur to me it might be parody at the time: a parody of tedium can easily end up just as tedious as what it parodies

Anonymous said...

The music accompanying the opening credits of the Tarkovsky version of 'Solaris' is indeed by Bach.
It is a chorale prelude called 'Ich ruf' zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ'.
(I call unto thee, Lord Jesus Christ).