|[I refuse to use the film tie-in cover]|
SynopsisA psychologist arrives at a research space station called Prometheus, his mission to ascertain whether research into the mysterious planet of Solaris should be terminated. He finds Prometheus all but deserted, its straggling crew seemingly haunted by hallucinations of figures from their pasts.
What Did We Think[Glyn's Note: I wasn't present for this session and the notes were kindly taken by Al Shipman. What follows are his transcriptions with some minor editing by yours truly. I've added a few comments of my own in square brackets - much like this one, some with some factual background, others with my opinions.]
[First opinions seem to be negative...] Rachel struggled to have an opinion whilst Susan thought badly written, and didn’t hold her attention, so had to skim, and even then didn’t get to end of book. Susan felt that being a Russian translation was not a valid excuse and what came across was lazy writing [I should point out that firstly, Lem was Polish not Russian (major faux pas), and secondly that the translation commonly available in English is actually a translation of a French translation, so I feel bad that Lem might be being misrepresented here]. These feelings tended to provoke speed reading, thus the reader could easily go on to miss the context and undervalue the prose. Several people agreed with these points to varying degrees, and most people chose to skip the internalized dialogue of Kelvin.
Al felt that the way Russians [Poles!] tend to write, very introspectively, and the significant age of the work (before many aspects of modern science and before the full emergence of psychology as a science) were significant challenges for the modern western reader. Rachel suggested this was in part due to the book being very much of it’s time in the sixties [Solaris was written in 1961, the English translated was released in 1970]. Liz wondered if it was all in Kelvin’s mind. Elaine sympathised with this viewpoint. The book was very intense but had a slow narrative, with stunted dialogue. Elaine suggested that it started better than it finished…she was very disappointed by the end. Although later in the discussion Al pointed out how moving and pertinent the closing line was “…I persist in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past”, and several people did find this line to be quite moving, and was food for further thought for Elaine also.
Liz could see why it was picked up for a movie, as it reads very cinematically. No exposition of the story. Susan noted that lots of things could have been left out. Rachel liked the oddness of the lack of narrative, and felt that this was done on purpose.
The sense of personal loss in the story was perhaps understated. Rheya’s sacrifice was met with mixed viewpoints. Considered quite surreal. There was some discussion of the Rheya’s .. past read and present representation, both suicidal. Al suggested that the recent movie adaptation made much more of the role of Rheya. Some amusement over what was going on in in Sartorius’s laboratory. The ocean as an immature child god growing and learning on a galactically slow timescale. The subjectivity of their attitudes was noted by Al to detract from true scientific approach, and therefore discredited their ‘studies’. Furthermore Kelvin wasn’t very convincing as a psychologist. He was too immotive, even from the start. Hardly likely.
It was strange that Kelvin, and thereby the readers, do not experience the ocean close up until the end of the book, though this was very possibly deliberate. Al commented that the recent film adaptation was highly effective, addressing many of the concerns raised in the discussion. The producers saw fit to change the ending. In one sense this was very odd, as the moving final line was lost. On the other hand, the cinematic ending was not untrue to the spirit of the book and raised a number of interesting points that were not a million miles from the spirit of the book. By the end of the discussion, there had been a degree of re-assessment by the members of the group.
Final votes out of ten were: 9,6,6,6,7,8. Final score: 7/10
There was much enthusiasm for next months book, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical
[Coda: I am a big fan of this book and acknowledge there are stylistic problems and its possibly not as sophisticated in its prose as some other science fiction has proven to be - this however could be down to the double translation issue (I'd be interested in reading the original, but since that would involve learning a language I have absolutely no grounding in it is clearly not going to happen). For me Solaris is a classic example of 60s/70s science fiction which is exploding established tropes and perceived truths. In Solaris Lem is examining the idea of the alien in a way which is in equal turns frustrating and pessimistic, completely odds with earlier visions of aliens which are humans with funny names and a different colour skin. Solaris is a relatively rare view of an alien which is genuinely alien, and thus completely incomprehensible to humanity. As a Pole, Lem is probably better placed to write this kind of fiction than anyone else given that Poland has frequently in its recent history been subjected to alien languages and cultures and experiences incomprehensible traumas and situations beyond the control of its populace or government. For me Lem remains on of the most important, and least recognised, authors of science fiction operating at his time, and Solaris a keystone of his work. - Glyn]