December 25, 2006

On First Looking into Lem's Solaris

Much to my loss (and, less importantly, embarrassment), I had never read this before this week. It really is as brilliant as everyone says, one of Lem's best, and bleakest, meditations on intelligence and alienness, cosmic strangeness and human pain. Most science fiction, like most fiction of any kind, is crap. Of the rest, most is mere brain-candy (which I devour eagerly, see side-bar at left). Of the rest, most is the literature of the great transformation, of humanity's passage out of pre-industrial darkness (perhaps into a different kind of darkness). This is science fiction as a literature that goes beyond the confines of our species.

I will not attempt a proper review, but I do want to draw out just one thread — I'm sure it's an old story to those who actually study Lem. The novel seems to owe something to two classic American stories of alien contact in the Antarctic, Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?", though I have no idea if that's even historically possible, and Solaris is unquestionably at a far higher intellectual level. (There are a few places where the passage from Polish to English via French has reduced technical terms to gobbledygook, though I think I can guess what Lem meant.) In fact, I can't help but wonder if Solaris wasn't, in part, Lem's response to the challenge Campbell, as editor, set to his authors: "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man". All those writers failed. (I think Lovecraft wanted to do this, but his best efforts ran a-ground in sentiments like this: "Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn — whatever they had been, they were men!"). Lem actually succeeded here in making his readers imagine something which is so orthogonal to any sort of terrestrial mentality that even terms like "mind" or "intelligence" seem dubious, but inescapable. That he achieves this effect through, in part, an even more extreme version of the literal anthropomorphism indulged in by Campbell, that is artistry.

There is artistry, too, in the way Lem's protagonist realizes he has had a profound encounter with the utterly alien, but what matters to him is the all-too-human hope its side-effects offer of a tormented emotional redemption. "I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past."

Merry Christmas.


Posted at December 25, 2006 10:00 | permanent link

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