By Chet Yarbrough
By Stanislaw Lem, Bill Johnston (translator)
Narrated by Alessandro Juliani
Solaris is a classic science fiction story about first-contact with an alien civilization. It was written by a Polish science fiction writer in 1961. It is translated into many languages but this version is alleged, by descendants of Stanislaw Lem, to be the first translation into English, directly from Polish.
The book has been turned into a movie three times, the most recent starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone.
Lem, the author, was educated to become a medical doctor but refused to take his final exams to avoid military service. He wrote his first science fiction novel in the late 1940s, titled “The Man from Mars”. He married a radiologist in the 1950s and continued to write science fiction into the 1990s. He was recognized and invited to join the Science Fiction Writers of America in the 1970s but was expelled because of critical remarks he made about the quality of American Science Fiction.
This English audiobook translation, from the Polish version of “Solaris”, makes Lem’s story good but not great. Presuming it is an accurate translation, the story is (at times) ponderous and contrived. The hero, Kelvin, seems driven to do things without apparent motive, other than offering a writer’s way of more fully explaining humankind’s difficulty in first-contact with an alien life form. Kelvin makes erratic trips to a library on the space station and accidentally finds publications that advance understanding of the story. This is a contrivance rather than an organically integrated part of the story.
An unintended irony of the translator’s comment, about direct translation of “Solaris” from Polish to English, is the paradigmatic meaning of translation. Good translation must reflect the nuance of another’s language. Without nuance, communication becomes imprecise; or worse, incomprehensible. An alien life form is not likely to communicate clearly to human beings because there is no common language and, probably, no common cultural signposts. Even with common language and cultural signposts, misunderstandings often occur between humans (see “Language in Thought and Action” by S.I Hayakawa). How much more probable is misunderstanding between aliens and humans?
Lem creates an oceanic planet that is a life-form unto itself. The alien ocean shows itself to be sentient within the realm of its own existence. From a human perspective, it may appear to be godlike but, from its own perspective, it may exist only for self-preservation. Human beings would not know because there are no common sign posts for understanding.
The ocean exists in a universe of two suns and acts within the framework of its own understanding. The ocean can create life forms from human thoughts; not only simple life forms but forms that are physiologically better than the real thing. The why-of-creation is a mystery, but the consequence of humanoid creation roils human relationships. To the oceanic life form, a humanoid is only an object of creation. To a human being, the humanoid becomes human.
The perfect recreation of humanoids has huge psychological effects on the space travelers because they are created by the alien ocean from the astronaut’s guilt ridden thoughts. The humanoids are sentient. They look, feel, and think like humans but they are ageless and immortal.
If the humanoid is created as a child, he/she remains a child. If created as a beautiful 20 something woman, she remains a beautiful 20 something woman–forever. The reminder of human’ guilt is exhibited every day in the humanoid’s relationship with the space traveler, theoretically–forever. However, human’ guilt may be assuaged by acknowledging humanoid’ sentient reality. With sentient acknowledgement, the space traveler may correct relationship’ mistakes. In theory, guilt becomes less prominent; possibly forgiven.
There is no explained objective in the alien ocean’s creation of humanoids but it becomes a common occurrence when the space station scientists aggressively intrude into the alien ocean’s existence with x-rays. Whether there is a causal relationship; i.e., a malicious intent or beneficent purpose of the ocean is unclear.
On the one hand, the ocean’s actions may be interpreted as malicious. The humanoid creations remind humans of past failings. Kelvin drove his wife to suicide. On the other hand, the humanoid offers a second chance to correct past failings. Kelvin attempts to repair his relationship with his “wife” (the humanoid).
Some might read the space station’s location as Eden; others will see the ocean-world’s space station as Sartre’s “No Exit” hell. Lem, even in translation, is an author with a terrifically imaginative mind.
The ideas of “Solaris” compel readers or listeners to complete the book. English translation undoubtedly misses some of Lem’s nuanced intent just as the ocean’s communication with humankind escapes human understanding.