When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
For a book touted so highly, I found it disappointing.
It wasn’t just the first person limited past tense storytelling. It was so much more than that.
When I started uni, almost a decade ago, this book was recommended to me. It’s why I never watched, or tried to avoid at least, the George Clooney film version and the others. I didn’t want the film and others opinions to taint mine.
Except it did anyway.
I saw just enough of the film to decipher one key lesson about a third into the novel: Loneliness. Regret. Guilt. Anger. Love. Longing. This book is about emotion rather than reason.
Except maybe not quite. The blurb behind the Finnish translation extols the themes Lem wrote about, things that conquer human science: God and faith. And that’s my main problem with Solaris.
There’s a reason why I chose to study physics, mathematics, and chemistry.
I like science. I’m curious. I ask questions. I’d like someone to answer those questions and if they can’t, I’d like to try finding the answers myself. It’s what drives every scientist: The need to know, the need to learn.
A few hundred years ago people relied on open fire and candles to see in the dark, to read (if they were lucky and privileged enough) in the dark and to write in the dark. Then a man called Maxwell came up with a set of equations that changed the world. Here we are a hundred and fifty years later playing with computers, paying with credit or debit cards, and turning a switch to see in the dark, to read and to write in a light as strong as day.
Throughout the book I wanted to know more about its science. I wanted to pick up those books Kelvin was reading or thinking about and I wanted to see the theories for myself. I wanted to learn them. I was mildly entertained and interested in the psychological disintegration of his character, but mostly I just wanted to see the hard data about Solaris and its sea. Maybe this is why I don’t read more science fiction: I get caught up on the science and forget the fiction.
But that’s not what this book is about either.
This book is about reaffirming people’s faith in a science dominated world. And for me, that’s a reason to be scared. As much as believing in something higher is to be admired and respected, I don’t want to turn back the clock to a time when a church could dictate how people should live and what was their precise place in life. I love the comforts science has provided me too much to give them up. I love the rights and freedoms I as a woman enjoy today because of science and Enlightenment.
Believing in science doesn’t mean you can’t have faith. Science answers only the question how, but you with your faith decide the answer to the question why.
Translation: Finnish (from French)
Suom: Matti Kannosto