Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (1961)
Stanislaw Lem, 1921-2006
• Polish writer of SF and philosophy
• Wrote 22 works of SF between 1946
and 1986; fiction and non-fiction deal
with philosophical and existential
• “the most widely read science fiction
writer in the world” (Theodore Sturgeon,
• First SF work was The Man From Mars
(1946); his last was Fiasco (1986)
• Key theme is the human inability to
comprehend the alien or unknown
• Used SF to critique the actual world and
literary conventions
• Disliked American SF, except for Philip K.
Dick, but was the subject of a paranoid letter
Dick wrote in 1974
Philip K. Dick on Lem, 1974
“For an Iron Curtain Party group - Lem is probably a composite committee rather
than an individual, since he writes in several styles and sometimes reads
foreign, to him, languages and sometimes does not - to gain monopoly positions
of power from which they can control opinion through criticism and pedagogic
essays is a threat to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange of
views and ideas.”
“Lem's creative abilities now appear to have been overrated and Lem's crude,
insulting and downright ignorant attacks on American science fiction and
American science fiction writers went too far too fast and alienated everyone but
the Party faithful (I am one of those highly alienated).”
“It is a grim development for our field and its hopes to find much of our criticism
and academic theses and publications completely controlled by a faceless group
in Krakow, Poland. What can be done, though, I do not know.”
• Lem was expelled from the Science Fiction Writers of America
for his dismissal of American SF
• Also dismissive of new media (e.g. TV, Internet) as being full of
“evil and stupidity”
• Characters waver between an optimistic view of human potential
and a pessimistic view of human limitations
• Saw the literary potential in the SF genre even as he dismissed
its excesses
• Solaris was translated into English from a French version, not
directly from Polish
• The only one of Lem’s works to be filmed in English
Nature of the Solarian Ocean
“a primitive formation – a sort of
gigantic entity, a fluid cell....capable
of exerting an active influence on
the planet’s orbital path”
“a plasmic mechanism...possibly
without life as we conceive it, but
capable of performing functional
activities – on an astronomic scale”
Or “a geological formation...with the
unique ability to stabilize the orbit of
“autistic ocean” or “ocean yogi”– or
none of the above?
Solarist Studies
• Critique of Enlightenment ideas of knowledge
• Reply to the tradition of “infodumping” in SF
• Provides background to the main action but
raises more questions than it answers
• Gendered portrayal of scientific discourse: all
the scientists in the novel are male (2002 film
sidesteps the gender issue by adding a
female scientist)
The Scientific Discourse of
• Parody of academic discourse
• Influenced by Kafka & Borges
• Anticipates actual-world theories, e.g. the Gaia
Hypothesis, the Uncertainty Principle
• May also be “a veiled attack on Marxism and its claim
to have replaced religious mystery with a science of
human history” (
• Lem’s early fascination with scientific literature and
‘official’ documents
• Influence of surrealism: Andre Berton
named after surrealist Andre Breton
• “The recruitment of scientists to any
particular field of study in a given age
has never been studied as a
phenomenon in its own right”
• “Grastrom set out to demonstrate that the most
abstract achievements of science, the most
advanced theories and victories of mathematics
represented nothing more than a stumbling, one- or
two-step progression from our rude, prehistoric,
anthropomorphic understanding of the universe
around us...there neither was, nor could be, any
question of ‘contact’ between mankind and any
nonhuman civilization”
• “How do you expect to communicate
with the ocean, when you can’t even
understand one another?”
• “the preconceptions of Earth offer no
assistance in unravelling the mysteries
of Solaris”
• “Solaristics is the space era’s equivalent
of religion: faith disguised as science”
• “We have no need of other worlds. We
need mirrors.”
• “There’s nowhere we can’t go; in that
belief we set out for other worlds, all
brimming with confidence. And what
were we going to do with them? Rule
them or be ruled by them: that was the
only idea in our pathetic minds!”
• “We have named all the stars and all
the planets, even though they might
already have had names of their own”
• “Man does not create gods... The times,
the age, impose them on him”
The Visitors, Mimoids, etc.
• Dream / hallucination / reality / hyperreality
• Embodiments of repressed emotions (fear,
guilt, etc.)
• Reactions of each individual scientist to his
respective visitor
• Self-preservation motive?
• Who’s experimenting on whom? For what
• Counterpart theory; eternal recurrence
Purposes of the formations?
Natural processes, or
byproducts thereof?
Communication by direct
access of memory?
Self-preservation, or revenge?
“O fair Aphrodite, child of
Ocean”– Snow on Rheya
“It implores us to help it die with
every one of its creations”
“The first phase of the
despairing God”
• The child in Berton’s report: “they were
methodical movements...performed one after
another, like a series of exercises; as though
someone had wanted to make a study of
what this child was capable of doing”
• “Operation Man”
• Mimoids – mimesis – sensory processes?
Drawn from memory too?
• “a ‘computer’ of the living ocean”
• “the morbid creation of a mind under the influence of
poisonous gases from the atmosphere”
• “psychic dissection for the purposes of a sort of recreation, an experimental reconstruction”
• “a super-copy, a reproduction which is superior to the
• “I am not a human being, only an instrument... To
study your reactions... We emerge from your memory
or your instrument of torture which
loves you and wishes you nothing but good”
Lem’s Philosophical and
Scientific Writings
Extraterrestrial intelligence
“intellectronics” – artificial intelligence
“phantomology” – virtual reality
World-building / possible worlds
“cyborgization” – includes genetic
engineering as well as
human/technology hybridization
Excerpt from Summa Technologica
(1967, trans. Frank Prengel)
• It is true that we cannot know anything with certainty
or precision in both history and evolution. This does
not mean, however, that we cannot find out or guess
anything at all. Maybe it is a game of chance, but we
can still investigate the potential for development
here and there. These prognostic chances will never
become certainty. They necessarily remain
possibilities with an undetermined realization
probability. But to recognize the outlines of distant
possibilities is better than nothing.
• Exploring possibilities means building mental models
of nonexisting things.
Derivative Works
• Has been filmed three times: in Russian in 1968 and 1972; and
in English in 2002
• Also inspired a German opera, a Polish play, and a British radio
• Prologues of Kelvin’s life on Earth in 1972 and 2002 films
• De-emphasis on Solaris itself, focus on its effects on the human
• Differences in visuals
• Influence of Tarkovsky on Soderbergh?
• Influence of Kubrick’s 2001 on both major films
• Lem’s opinions of the films: “Crime and Punishment in space”
(1972); “Love Story in space” (2002)
• Influences of sociopolitical and/or economic concerns
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film
Steven Soderbergh’s 2002

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (1961)