While making my way through this list, I’ve read about more versions of alien life than I can count. Giant sandworms, killer plants, and even sentient planets. But few incarnations of extraterrestrial life are as strange and foreign as what Stanislaw Lem imagines in his groundbreaking novel Solaris. Set entirely on the titular planet, the alien in question is actually the ocean that covers the planet’s surface. And while a living ocean might not seem like the most far-fetched form alien life could possibly take, Lem’s description of its enigmatic nature and the inability of humans to understand and communicate with it is what makes it so fascinating. If you’re looking for fast-paced action and swashbuckling space battles, this is definitely not the book for you. But if you’re looking for an intelligent examination of how first contact with an alien life form might actually be, than you’ve got to give Solaris a shot.
Our protagonist is an astronaut named Kris Kelvin who has just arrived at the Solaris Station from Earth. Through Kelvin’s narration, we soon learn that the study of Solaris has been going on for a while – with a whole branch of science popping up (Solaristics) with various theories about the nature of the ocean and how it might be trying to communicate. Over the time they’ve been studying Solar, the ocean has created hundreds of shapes and configurations out of whatever material it’s made of – including complex geometric patterns and massive structures. While some scientists think that these spasms are the ocean’s way of trying to contact humans, others feel that these paroxysms are really just the death throes of a super-intelligent entity with no real way of communicating with humanity.
Upon arriving on Solaris, Kelvin is greeted by one of two astronauts currently on the station, a man named Snow who is acting very strangely. There is another man on board named Sartorius whose doesn’t come out of his room much, and Kelvin soon learns that a third man named Gibarian recently committed suicide on board for unknown reasons. After a while aboard the station Kelvin realizes that something is extremely wrong when he starts getting “visits.” The first is from a “giant Negress” (Lem’s description) who he sees wandering the halls of the station, apparently unaware that he even exists. The second is someone he knows very well: his dead wife who committed suicide.
We soon realize that the “visits” that each man on the station are having are actually being created by the ocean itself directly from their memories. Shocked at the realization, and deeply troubled by being confronted by his dead wife, Kelvin tries to help the remaining two crew mates find a solution to their visitors and decipher the meaning behind their appearance.
If you’ve only seen the movie version of Solaris (either one), you might get the idea that the story is primarily about the relationship between Kelvin and his dead wife – and the complicated emotions surrounding their history. And while that element is crucial to the book, the both movies leave out most of Lem’s most inventive and thought-provoking narrative elements. While Solaris is still a book about the need for us to look within ourselves for answers to the universe’s most difficult questions, it’s also about the idea that, given the complexity and vastness of the universe, trying to comprehend and communicate with an extraterrestrial life form may be damn near impossible – no matter how much we try to anthropomorphize them. And while it may not be the most uplifting or satisfying realization, Lem is able to explore the topic from a perspective that is both sensitive and imaginative. If you’re in the right mood, that’s a great combination.