During the Soviet era, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem was the most celebrated SF author in the Communist world. Although he read Western SF when he was young, he soon found it shallow and turned for inspiration to the long tradition of Eastern European philosophical fantasy. Western readers not familiar with this tradition often misread his works, expecting more action-oriented, technophilic fiction. Solaris comes closer to being a traditional SF novel than most of his works, but its main thrust is still philosophical. There is a deep strain of irony which runs through this work, for all its occasionally grim moments.

The great Russian experimental director Andrei Tarkovsky made an important film based on the novel which is considerably more confusing that the book. (For more information about Tarkovsky and his film, see The pared-down 2002 version by Steven Soderbergh keeps amazingly close–for a Hollywood film–to Lem’s original themes and ideas, but its emotional inertness (particularly on the part of George Clooney) prevents it from having the full effect intended. This is one case where reading the book before seeing the film may help you to experience the intended effect better. Perhaps Soderbergh remembered the anguish of Kelvin so clearly from his reading that he didn’t realize the need to convey it more vividly to an audience that would not share the same memories.

Keep in mind that what you are reading is a translation from a French translation which was in turn translated from the Polish original. We are some distance from Lem’s original words.

Chapter 1: The Arrival

The novel begins as the narrator, a scientist named Kris Kelvin, is descending toward the surface of the mysterious planet Solaris. How many instances can you find in this chapter of failures to perceive, breakdowns in communication, etc.? This is to be the main theme of the book. Whereas conventional SF poses puzzles only to solve them, Solaris concentrates on the puzzling nature of reality and the limits of science. The ship that has brought Kelvin to Solaris is called the Promethus, a name associated with civilization and enlightenment in Greek mythology, but also with condemnation to terrible torment. As he enters the station suspended above the planet’s surface, note the many instances of wear, disorder and confusion. In the original Polish, Snow’s name is “Snaut.” What do the many concrete details given suggest about the state of things in the station? Snow’s strange initial reaction to Kelvin will be explained later. What features of this chapter are reminiscent of a mystery story?

Chapter 2: The Solarists

Keep in mind the scribbled word “Man!” as you read on. See if you can understand why someone would have written it. Why does Lem treat Kelvin’s “premonition” as he does? Much of this novel is a well-informed satire on the process of scientific research and publication. What may seem to the novice like tedious passages of irrelevant exposition reminiscent of Jules Verne (what modern SF fans call “info-dumps”), are in fact often amusing parodies of academic scholarship–especially those which occur later in the novel. Whether or not you catch the humor in these passages, they are crucial for understanding the central themes of the novel. They provide a wide variety of interpretations which succeed only in revealing the minds of the interpreters, leaving Solaris as mysterious as ever. In this way they are strikingly reminiscent of the writings of another Eastern European master, Franz Kafka. The ability of Solaris to control its own orbit anticipates some of the wilder fantasies built on the “Gaia hypothesis,” according to which Earth has the ability to maintain conditions favorable to life. Solaris’ ability to remodel the instruments created to study it resembles quantum physics’ uncertainty principle: studying subatomic particles affects their behavior in ways that make it impossible to separate the observer from the observation. This theory underlies the whole novel, and embodies many of the most crucial problems facing modern science. “Ignoramus et ignorabimus” is a slogan of the ancient skeptics proclaiming the impossibility of certain knowledge: “We do not know and we will not [cannot] know.” Skepticisms’ approach to knowledge is being compared to that of quantum physics. What is the difference between these two theories: the “autistic ocean” and the “ocean-yogi?” What does the condition of Gibarian’s room suggest? What plan of Gibarian’s does Kelvin discover? In what way does the manuscript of this plan reflect the themes of the novel? Note how the ending of the chapter begins to resemble the mood of a ghost or horror story or monster movie. Watch how Lem begins to depart from traditional “monsters-from-outer-space” themes as the story unfolds.

Chapter 3: The Visitors

Even in 1961 the figure of the “giant Negress” would have been offensive to many Western readers; but keep in mind that Lem was writing in Poland, where there were very few black people. As it turns out, there are good reasons for her stereotypically cartoon-like appearance. How does Kelvin try to get more information about the X-ray experiments out of Snow? How did Gibarian die?

Chapter 4: Sartorius

“André Berton” is a pun on the name of the famous surrealist spokesman and leader André Breton, who delighted in breaking down logic by irrationally juxtaposing objects in an arbitrary fashion–an apostle of disorder and madness. ÒSartoriusÓ is the name of a thigh muscle, not a common personal name in either Polish or English. Lem studied medicine, and was probably taken by the name when he encountered it in his anatomical studies. The identity and nature of Sartorius’s child “visitor” are deliberately kept a secret. One can make guesses, but it would be a mistake to treat this as a conventional “mystery” to be “solved.” How do we slowly come to realize that Sartorius’ secrecy is motivated not so much by fear as by shame? What is significant about the “Negress’s” feet? An old-fashioned technique of discovering whether one is dreaming or awake is pinching oneself. What more sophisticated method does Kelvin invent? What does this mean: “I was not mad. The last ray of hope was extinguished”?

Chapter 5: Rheya

The name rendered “Rheya” here is “Harey” in Polish, doubtless altered because it suggests the English masculine name “Harry.” In what ways is Rheya like a traditional ghost? What does the hypodermic needle scar suggest, and how is it connected to what Kelvin “had said to her five days earlier”? Why does Kelvin prick himself with the spindle? How does Kelvin discover that this is not the original Rheya? Avenging ghosts deliberately set out to haunt those who have wronged them. In what way is Rheya different? Does this make her more or less terrible? How is the behavior of this Rheya different from that of the original? Why is it significant that she knows about “Pelvis”? What stops Kelvin from strangling Rheya? Why are there no fasteners on Rheya’s dress? “Spanner” is British English for “wrench.”

Chapter 6: “The Little Apocrypha”

Why is Snow now more willing to visit with Kelvin? The reference to the well-aimed ink bottle comes from a famous incident in which Protestant reformer Martin Luther was visited by the Devil in his study one day and threw an ink-bottle at the figure to frighten it away. Supposedly the stain of the ink remained visible on the wall. What does Snow mean by saying “We have two or three hours at our disposal”? Although scopolamine is famous as “truth serum” it is also a powerful sedative, and that is its use here. What is Snow’s theory about the nature of the ” visitors”? Snow’s long speech on space exploration in the paragraph which begins “It’s almost as if you’re purposely refusing to understand” is one of the best-known and most often-quoted in the book. What are its main themes and how do they relate to traditional science fiction? “Succubi” is the plural of “succubus,” a sort of evil spirit who haunts men by having sex with them. Why is Snow convinced that Solaris is not trying to destroy them? Why does Kelvin consider it important to point out to Snow that his burn wounds have not healed? Note that this being the early sixties, a growth of beard is considered a sign of emotional collapse. Why does Snow say it might be worth while staying on Solaris although they cannot learn anything about the planet? To understand Berton’s theory of how the ocean operates, one must understand something of Freud’s theory of the unconscious (not to be confused with the “subconscious”). The unconscious consists of feelings and memories which have been suppressed from the conscious mind by “contrary feelings” mostly having to do with shame and guilt. Although they are not accessible directly, their presence is revealed in a distorted form in dreams and as a powerful distorting force which can cause involuntary mistakes in speech (“Freudian slips”), and neurotic obsessions and illnesses of various kinds. How do Solaris’ activities seem to relate to the unconscious? Be careful not to use the common misspelling “unconscience.”

Chapter 7: The Conference

What is different about Kelvin’s second encounter with a “Rheya”? Why is he so horrified by the sight of the two dresses? What are the main superhuman qualities of “Rheya”? What can you infer from “Rheya’s” eating patterns? What does Kelvin discover about the visitor’s blood? The objections to Kelvin’ s neutrino theory are perfectly sound. The whole passage is merely a pseudo-scientific way of expressing a mystery, though the basic concept is important to grasp. The ocean has somehow created objects with a structure that differs at the deepest level from ordinary atomic structure. An angstrom is one-hundred-millionth of a centimeter. A neutrino has almost no mass and hardly interacts with other matter at all. It therefore makes a good basis for an unsolvable mystery. It is not clear whether or not there is any conscious intention behind the creation of the “phi-creatures.” Which possibility is more frightening, in your opinion?

Chapter 8: The Monsters

In what way is this speech of “Rheya’s” ironic: “I’m such a coward”? What kind of book does “Rheya” choose to examine? In the long passage describing Giese’s work we learn more about the “mimoids.” Their name comes from “mimic” and the suffix “oid,” which implies similarity. This sort of loving detail is a feature of Jules Verne’s fiction, but here it serves a different function. Whereas Verne is seeking to educate (sometimes simply copying out long passages from reference books), Lem uses a Kafkaesque technique to bewilder the reader with a plethora of concrete detail which does little to unveil the mystery, only multiplying possibilities, though in brilliant language. An “erg” is the standard unit of energy, defined as the amount of work done by one dyne acting through a distance of one centimeter. A dyne is the unit of force which in one second can alter the velocity by one centimeter per second of a mass of one gram. Analyze the philosophical statement in the paragraph which begins “The human mind is only capable. . . .” What are its implications? How has Kelvin’s attitude toward “Rheya” changed? What does “I’m divorced” mean? According to Freud, the rational and moral parts of our mind dwell in the conscious realm. It is their activity which keeps the unconscious suppressed. Therefore what is the point of beaming encoded versions of their conscious thoughts at the ocean via X-rays? What is the alternative plan, and how does it differ from this?

Chapter 9: The Liquid Oxygen

How is the arrival of the “new” Gibarian different from the other strange appearances which have occurred? What has happened to the tape recorder, and why is it important? What is different about the suicide in this chapter? What does “Rheya” learn from it? How have Kelvin’s feelings changed? How have “Rheya’s” feelings about herself changed? “First contact” with an alien species is a major theme in SF. What does Kelvin have to say on this subject?

Chapter 10: Conversation

Why does Kelvin shout “You’re out of your mind!” when Snow suggests that he determine whether the phi-creatures can exist away from the planet’s surface by examining the vehicle he earlier launched into orbit? According to the Greek historian Herodotus, when the Persian general Xerxes was frustrated in his attempt to invade Europe by a storm at the Hellespont which made it too rough to cross, he had the stream scourged by beating it with rods, cursing it. This has traditionally been used as an illustration of tyrannical egotism and irrationality. In the paragraph beginning “I’ll give you an answer” Snow keenly analyzes Kelvin’s motives. What are his main points? Why is Kelvin afraid to carry out the proposed experiment?

Chapter 11: The Thinkers

According to Kelvin, what did human beings have in mind when they first set out for other worlds? This chapter contains a long satirical passage in the Kafkaesque mode tracing the history of Solaristics, a passage also reminiscent of some of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. The more scholarship you have read, the more amusing it will be. If you are not familiar with much of this sort of thing it may well seem pointless. Identify a few of the patterns that run through this history. The most important passage, one which underlies the philosophy of the entire novel, concerns the pamphlet by Grastrom. This is the other most famous passage in the novel. What are its main messages?

Chapter 12: The Dreams

Describe Kelvin’s dream (the long one, told in the paragraph beginning “On the fifteenth day”). What do you think it means? When Snow calls Sartorius “Faust in reverse” he is thinking of the fact that one of Faust’s first uses of the devil’s powers after signing his famous contract was to make himself decades younger, greatly prolonging his life. “Agonia perpetua” is Latin for “eternal torment, referring to the punishment of the damned in Hell. Snow calls Rheya ” Aphrodite, child of Ocean.” Why? (Hint: look up Aphrodite in any encyclopedia or mythology handbook.) What do you think Kelvin is feeling in the last paragraph of this chapter?

Chapter 13: Victory

Why can’t Rheya and Kelvin “live happily ever after?” How does Kelvin’s last dream affect the emotional impact of the immediately following scene? Why does Kelvin want to destroy Solaris at first? What does this title of this chapter mean?

Chapter 14: The Old Mimoid

How has Kelvin been changed by his relationship with “Rheya?” Manicheanism was a religion founded by a third-century prophet named Mani, distantly related to Persian Zarathustrianism. Like the latter, it argued that the presence of evil in the universe could be explained by the existence of an evil god named Ahriman who was perpetually in conflict with a good God named Ahura-Mazda. The sort of imperfect god Kelvin describes had in fact been described by at least two writers before him: Nikos Kazantzakis presents such an image of God in many books, particularly The Saviors of God, and Olaf Stapledon in The Star-Maker; and Lem specifically acknowledges having read the latter. What is the argument that Kelvin makes against the ability of human beings to create gods according to their individual desires? What do you think of this argument? What do you think Kelvin is trying to do as he plays with the waves? Why is it significant that he cannot actually touch the surface of the ocean? What does the growth of the flower in his hand suggest? “Finis vitae sed non amoris” means “life ends but not love.” What does the last sentence of the novel mean?

Recommended Reading:

Scicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr.: “The Book Is the Alien: On Certain and Uncertain Readings of Lem’s Solaris,” Science-Fiction Studies 12 (March 1985): 6-21.

Collin Hughes has created an interesting related site that links these notes to his own discussion of the film versions of the novel.

Hughes site

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Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
Originally posted June 13, 1995.
Last revised November 29, 2002.