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0488 | Solaris | Stanislaw Lem

0488 | Solaris | Stanislaw Lem post image

Context: While reading this during lunch breaks at work, I was presented with a nameplate for my cubicle.

Lem’s account of a planet covered by what seems to be an intelligent ocean is the work not just of immense imagination but also a critically insightful mind.

Kris Kelvin lands on a manned space station hovering over Solaris, a planet with two suns of differing colours and an ever-moving surface that resembles an ocean of immense dimensions that brought to mind some kind of galactic lava lamp. The scientists he expects to find there are not in the state he expected them to be in when he arrived: one is dead, one has barricaded himself into a laboratory and the last appears to be mad. It’s only a matter of time before Kelvin begins to grasp why and struggles himself not to succumb.

The novel is a sci-fi classic and asks deep questions of science and humanity’s quest for knowledge. In particular, it challenges the way that all human exploration, interplanetary or otherwise, is essentially flawed because of our inability to interpret anything without reference to ourselves. He’s got a point and it’s one which social sciences acknowledge and attempt to reconcile all the time.

The difference here is that Lem is challenging the pure sciences, proponents of which often look down on social sciences as lesser studies due to this very limitation. Having been involved in anthropology and sociolinguistics for some years in my career, I’ve grappled personally with the limitations of the participant observer. I’ve also debated with both of my parents (involved in medical science) that fields such as sociolinguistics are as scientific as those of haematology or parasitology. They have disagreed essentially on the basis that their sciences can prove undoubtedly that x is x and y is y.

Lem’s challenge to this idea was, ironically, published in Poland in 1961, the year both my parents were embarking on their scientific careers. I’ve never heard either of them refer to Solaris. My mother will no longer get the chance. My father will have my copy when I next visit him. It will be interesting to see if he grasps Lem’s point, let alone agrees with it.

As Kris and the remaining two scientists attempt to make sense of their interactions with the ocean of Solaris, the novel builds to its close and kept me engrossed pretty much throughout. It would benefit from a second reading actually. The novel is as relevant today as it was when it was written.


At 19.00 hours, ship’s time, I made my way to the launching bay.


We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath to them our values and take over their heritage in exchange.


This might reveal the ending. If you want to see the quote, click show

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1 comment… add one
  • Catherine 27 May, 2015, 4:31 am

    I agree – Lem asked some very pertinent questions of science and humanity. I’m a medical librarian and I have to say that medicine has a difficult time with proving x is x and y is y. Mostly because many trials and measures are wrong [Why Most Published Research Findings Are False http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/%5D I really enjoyed this novel and will reread it again one day. It gave me lots to think about.

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