this weekend, in light of my forthcoming endocrinology test (quick! ask me about the anterior pituitary!), I read Solaris, the infamously trippy, psychological-but-yet-still-hard-scifi novel by Stanislaw Lem. And then I watched the movie (the 2003 George Clooney, as the person who loaned me the book said she liked it better).
And. There were parts of this book that I really appreciated--and one of them was how CREEPY it was. It's paranoid, and it makes the reader paranoid. You are Kris Kelvin, you're following his every thought throughout this whole ordeal. When he arrives on a space station to find the person who invited him there dead, and one of his colleagues uncommunicative and paranoid, the other locked in his lab, you start to get creeped out. You are just as confused as he is when the planet scans his brain and recreates an immortal simulacra of his dead wife. The fact that Snow and Sartorius are both unavailable--both physically, conversationally, and emotionally--for the entire novel makes it a very isolating one. You, the reader, are Kelvin as he has to try to figure out how to deal with his 'visitor' on his own. There are brief moments that are frightening in their details: the conversation Kelvin has with Snow, only to realize at the end that Snow is holding the hand of someone or something that is hiding in a cabinet the entire time. Creepy also is the fact that their 'visitors' cannot leave them--watching Rheya, not knowing why she did it, rip apart a space station door because she can't see Kelvin is a moment of real power in the narrative. It encases and includes the claustrophobia, the sense of confinement.
I think I mention these things because these were things I LOVED about the book that the movie completely ignored.
Solaris is a few things. It is an exercise in claustrophobia, it's a commentary on the nature of space exploration, it's a lot of fake hard science, and it's also a love story. The love story, while integrally a part of it, and for that matter an interesting part--his wife's suicide, the subtle way in which she goes from something he wants to destroy to something he wants to protect--is NOT the entire story (which, if you watch the movie, you will not learn). Of course the movie was going to get it wrong, I know, hollywood loves a love story, and telling bits of the story from her point of view was interesting. But I'm not sure why they left out all the things I mentioned above--you know, the super cool, super creepy stuff that could have made this a really visually interesting and scary movie--in favor of love scenes between two actors with awkward, barely-there chemistry. When Solaris the movie tries to be creepy, it has blood on the floor. There was just so much more to work with in their source material. What you end up with is a love story, randomly set on a space station, with some unnamed and unquestioned force bringing back his suicidal wife. And sure, you get some pre-Inception Inceptioney questions about 'how close is a memory of a person to the person's actual life' (duh, not very), but that's really not what Solaris was about.
The premise of Solaris the book is that space travel (science fiction space travel, anyway) is about finding a reflection of man. Man goes into the stars looking for something like himself. Whether it be language, bipedalism, warm-bloodedness, M-class planets, single star orbits, a nervous system, a system of communication--whatever life we encounter out there must be like us, right? All the life we know is like us. We have a lot of attributes. Of course something in space will be like us. The 'hard scifi' part of Solaris--and a good third to half the novel is spent explaining this phenomena--is the fact that Solaris is a planet with an unstable orbit around a dual star system. The thing holding the planet in check is a giant, probably-sentient 'ocean' that can do anything. It's not made of cells. It may be made of atoms or maybe neutrinos (I'm not sure how good Lem is on physics, considering this was a 1961 novel, but he tries real hard). It may be intelligent--it doesn't react the same way to stimuli when stimuli are given, anyway. This laundry-list of the ocean's attributes takes up a vast number of pages in this very short novel, turning it into (if you subtract the characters and just give Kelvin's reading and inner monologue) a scientific review of the Phenomenon of Solaris. It does get tedious. But reading the book you are never to doubt that what this book is really about is the ocean.
And what is the ocean? Kelvin, by the end, is ready to theorize that it's a very young god; a sly way by Lem of criticizing humans for deifying anything they can't understand. The fundamental, and most interesting part of Solaris, is the question of the other. Other than human. There are still a vast, unaccounted-for number of things that humanity does not (cannot?) understand. And our reaction to the unknown--the human tendency to become small, afraid, mean, and protective when faced with what cannot be understood--is what's being examined in Solaris, just as closely as Kelvin examines the ocean.