Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is an old fashioned scifi classic. Old fashioned in a Star Trek sense, with scientists in spacesuits, traveling to new planets. In this case, the planet is Solaris, a planet with 2 suns and an “ocean” comprised of an unknown morphing substance. Earth’s scientists have devoted decades of study to this planet and ocean, developing an elaborate classification system of the ocean’s ever changing formations.
Research into Solaris is stagnant, until the latest expedition tries an unauthorized experiment – bombarding the ocean with highly powered X-rays. Finally, the scientists have attracted the attention of the ocean, which appears to be sentient, intelligent, and until now, completely uninterested in the human expedition.
Kris Kelvin arrives on Solaris just after this experiment. After arriving on the research station, he wakes up to find his dead wife, Rheya with him. Rheya committed suicide years ago, after a quarrel with Kelvin, and seeing her changes Kelvin’s approach to Solaris. Each scientist on Solaris has a visitor, someone important to them towards whom they feel love, guilt, and responsibility. The visitors are discovered to be comprised of neutrinos, manifested by the ocean.
What is the ocean’s purpose? Is it curious or hostile? Is it performing an experiment of its own?
This novel raises a host of questions regarding experimentation and ethics, sentience and responsibility. Pondering these questions is fascinating – and helps alleviate some of the tedium of the narrative. Lem lets the novel get bogged down in lengthy discussions of the oceanic formations and the scientific theories regarding Solaris.
Even with the overly detailed descriptive passages about the ocean and the history of the scientists – called Solarians – this novel is worth reading. It brings to the reader’s attention a question that we really need to think about: when and if humans encounter alien intelligence, will we recognize it? And – even more frightening – will that intelligence recognize us?