Sunday, December 16, 2007

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Title: Solaris
Author: Stanislaw Lem
Rating: Good

In 1961, Stanislaw Lem published Solaris, a relatively short novel telling the story of an expedition to the planet Solaris, which finds some very unusual things going on. There are two movie adaptations of this novel as well, and (for me, at least) they are all wrapped up together. As a result, this review will discuss them all in one way or another.

In 1972, the first adaptation of Solaris was released as a movie, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. This film is something of a cult classic, and you can get it from Netflix any time. At the time I saw it - well over a year ago - I liked it, despite the interminable driving sequences. I rated it four out of five stars, and sent it back. But as I think back on it now - even after reading the wikipedia entry - I find I remember almost none of it except the above mentioned, monotonous, driving sequences. For me, with the benefit of hindsight, that film was a flop. Interestingly, IMDb spells it Solyaris.

In 2002 another movie adaptation of Solaris was released. This time it was directed by Steven Soderbergh and starred George Clooney. I actually saw this film first - before either reading the book or seeing the 1972 film - and it was this that peaked my interest in the other versions. Alas this release was a box office flop, but I really liked it. I found it both spooky and thought provoking. It's not a huge, action oriented, SF film, and that certainly helped spell its doom in theaters. Like the 1972 movie, I rated it four of five stars when I saw it. Now, however, I'd be tempted to raise that rating. This film has stuck with me, both visually and in the content of it's ideas. The wikipedia entry for this film is very short, and the IMDb entry is also lacking in content as of this writing.

It appears to me that the 2002 movie is related to the book in a manner somewhat similar to Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In reality, the movie and the book are more closely related here than in the case of Blade Runner, but there are still some significant differences. I honestly don't remember enough of the 1972 film at this point to make any statements about it.

Lem's original novel is an examination of whether or not humans will ever be able to understand aliens. Without giving away too much, I can tell you the answer presented here is "no". Solaris itself is a single organism that looks to us like an ocean covering nearly all of an earth sized planet. It has modes of behavior that Lem describes in great detail, but they mean nothing to the humans observing it. Those humans inhabit a station perched over Solaris, and while deep in their researches they find that they are being examined in return by the creature below.

The main character, Kris Kelvin, arrives at Solaris station to discover that strange visitors - beings from their past - appear and interact with the crew. One of the crew is already dead and the others are unstable at best. Then Kelvin's long dead wife appears and he starts to wonder about his own sanity, among other things.

The book spends a lot of time on the nature of Solaris itself and the inability of anyone to understand what it is doing at any level. The end is both tragic and a bit vague, as what will happen to the crew - and indeed all of Solaris research - is left unclear, at least to me.

The 2002 movie skips all the details about the activities of the Solaris organism and instead concentrates on the crew, their visitors, and their interrelationships. The idea that humans cannot understand Solaris at all is barely present. But for all that it changes so much of Lem's book - even adding entirely new back story about Kelvin and his wife, Rheya - it's still a very good film. The visuals are stunning and it has stayed with me for a long time, unlike the 1972 version.

Solaris - the book - is a classic of SF, and recommended. Those interested in the pitfalls of our possible interactions with the truly alien will appreciate it. For my money, though, the better story about people is in the 2002 movie adaptation. See it if you can.