My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Solaris is the best known work of the Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem. It’s the story of the planet Solaris’s super-intelligent ocean and the humans that are observing it from an orbiting space station. Scientists discover that the ocean is intelligent because the planet orbits two stars, and the ocean must redistribute itself as ballast to keep Solaris from flying off out of its star systems.
Having had no luck in learning about this ocean, the scientists begin more invasive operations–bombarding the ocean with electromagnetic radiation. The ocean then begins to project human beings into the space station, using blueprints in the minds of the scientists. Each of the scientists begins to see, and eventually interact with, someone from his past. Each “guest” is physically indistinguishable from the person in the respective scientist’s past, but the simulacra are “off.” These simulacra stir up bad memories.
The most extensive interaction we see between a crew member and one of these manifestations is that of the protagonist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, and his ex-wife. Dr. Kelvin is a psychologist and is the most recent crew edition. (The novel actually starts with him as a new arrival, we learn of the earlier incidents as he does.) His “visitor” is the spitting image of his wife, a woman who committed suicide after the couple broke up.
The novel plays with an intriguing question. What if a person you loved and lost came back from the dead, but you would only be able to experience them as they existed in your mind? In some sense, they’d be more real to you than the actual person. But you’d know they were just a fabrication, and you could never learn anything new about them. At first Kelvin rejects, even banishes, his wife’s doppelgänger, but when she inexplicably returns he finds it hard to maintain his distance.
I enjoyed this book. The translation seemed skilled to me (though I don’t read Polish, and hence didn’t read the original.) I’d recommend it.
There have been three film adaptations of this novel. I haven’t seen any of the movies, but this is the trailer for the most recent one. The trailer emphasizes the love relationship more and the sentient ocean less than the novel (though the interaction of the protagonist with his imagined wife is central to the work.)