2011/07/24

Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

I waited over a month for my hold at the library to come in, but it was worth it. This is just a lovely short novel. The only translation currently available in print is famously second-class (Polish to French to English1) and I think in places it shows, but the source material shines through.

Solaris
Stanisław Lem, 1961, 204p2
Our protagonist arrives at a station hovering over the "ocean" planet Solaris, a planet that appears alive, but stubbornly refuses to communicate. The research station is in disarray, with the occupants tormented with what appears to be an attempt by the planet to communicate. Threading through the immediate drama of the personal torment is the history of the discovery and research of the planet, which we encounter through the research station library. This narrative was the highlight of the book for me, a reflective half-satire about science shot through with dazzling imagination and imagery, and a portrait of man's ambition and weakness when it comes to exploration.

The ocean here is my favourite sort of science fiction: a novel, compelling idea that is broad enough to be a metaphor for many things, without being an obvious metaphor for one thing in particular; fascinating on its own, but a gateway to many other ideas. It is almost certainly my notable déformation professionnelle3 talking, but the ocean triggered a lot of thinking about the Internet: like the ocean it appears dispersed, emergent, and largely deaf to human probing and concerns. Some Googling reveals that Lem himself felt vaguely this way about the Internet: "The technology moves forward, however the control of its direction is very weak."4 As a specific metaphor, it falls apart, much like it does as a metaphor for the human mind, the universe and many other things. But it prods you along those paths.

A lot of Lem's optimism feels a bit anachronistic now: his future has knowledge in epic, exhaustive surveys rather than today's dirty squirts (redeemed only by situating themselves in the context of a billion other dirty squirts). His pessimism felt astonishingly topical, though, and it nestled immediately with a friendly cluster of like-minded dirty squirts squirming near the surface of my waters.

Notes:

  1. The author had expressed disappointment with the translation. Finally a new direct translation has been published, but only as an audiobook, somehow.
  2. Pictured is the first edition US cover, my library copy had a dismal 1980s cover.
  3. A favourite disorder around my office: déformation professionnelle.
  4. See bottom for source and context of quote.

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