Friday, August 01, 2008

The bottomless ocean

I've been meaning to read Solaris forever.

I saw the Tarkovsky film adaptation at a rep cinema half a lifetime ago. I fell asleep. I insist that this was no comment on the film per se; I was studying hard, and working strange hours. Yet the film made an impression on me, some visuals burned on my retina.

Then there was the remake. Which I had to see, because the premise is brilliant, the idea of a remake intrigued me, and because George Clooney is hot. But I fell asleep.

This year I read Stanislaw Lem for the first time. It blew me away.

And I arrive at Solaris by chance. I didn't plan on it, not yet. I'd meant to wait awhile, acquaint myself with some other of Lem's work. Find a French edition, from which the English was translated; a Polish edition, by which to judge and improve the English result.

As fate would have it, I found Solaris at the end of a shelf of English-language young adult fiction, just off the music listening stations, in the children's section of the Bibliothèque Nationale, where Helena and I spend an evening every three weeks or so, no doubt misshelved on account of its cover (shown). It was waiting for me.

"You poor innocent!"

I looked up with a start. But Snow was not making fun of me. It seemed to me that I was seeing him now for the first time. His face was grey, and the deep lines between cheek and nose were evidence of an unutterable exhaustion: he looked a sick man.

Curiously awed, I asked him:

"Why did you say that?"

"Because it's a tragic story." Seeing that I was upset, he added, hastily: "No, no you still don't understand. Of course it's a terrible burden to carry around, and you must feel like a murderer, but . . . there are worse things."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, really. And I'm almost glad that you refuse to believe me. Certain events, which have actually happened, are horrible, but what is more horrible still is what hasn't happened, what has never existed."

"What are you saying? I asked, my voice faltering.

He shook his head from side to side.

"A normal man," he said. "What is a normal man? A man who has never committed a disgraceful act? Maybe, but has he never had uncontrollable thoughts? Perhaps he hasn't. But perhaps something, a phantasm, rose up from somewhere within him, ten or thirty years ago, something which he suppressed and then forgot about, which he doesn't fear since he knows he will never allow it to develop and so lead to any action on his part. And now, suddenly, in broad daylight, he comes across this thing . . . this thought, embodied, riveted to him, indestructible. He wonders where he is . . . Do you know where he is?"

"Where?"

"Here," whispered Snow, "on Solaris."


Having now read two of Lem's novels, I can already clearly identify two central themes to his work:

1. The problem of alien-ness, and the ill-reasoned human tendency to anthropomorphize that alien-ness.

2. The problem of human-ness: how can we hope to know anything alien if we do not truly know ourselves?

(What we see is a reflection of what we ourselves project.)

The book is not as philosophical as His Master's Voice, but still very thoughtful. It has a plot. It's short, but it bogs down a bit in the middle, for just a few pages, in describing the physical nature, the geological formations, the molecular structure, of the planet Solaris, which is essentially a sentient ocean, tapping into explorers' consciousnesses to confront them with their own memories, performing its own brand of experiment on the scientists.

The burning question Solaris poses to this reader is one of psychological horror: What dark, suppressed shame of mine would Solaris find to test me with?

**********

Gallery of book covers (select Solaris in the sidebar), from which all movie tie-ins are tastefully omitted.

Plethora of Solaris-related tidbits.

Solaris throws into question my safe-phrase, my mantra, the knowledge that keeps me sane when all else is chaos: "There is water at the bottom of the ocean."
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