Takeaway: Another example of why you should read the book and not depend on the movie.
Solaris is a classic science fiction book. It was written in 1961 by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. It was then translated to French and then the French version was translated to English in 1966. Lem sold the rights to the English sales as part of the translation deal and for the last 45 years the only available version of Solaris in English was a version that Lem (who read and wrote fluently in English) thought was inferior.
It is only in 2011 that Audible.com was able to record a new translation for a 50th Anniversary edition and earlier this year a Kindle version of the new translation was released. I have no idea what happened in the background to allow this. But Lem’s estate approved the translations and the Audible.com project.
It has been a decade or so since I last read Solaris. So the difference between the new version, the original version, and the two very different movie versions are a bit fuzzy. To be clear, I liked both movies, but both took liberties with the story. And the 2002 George Clooney version completely changed the story. The most noticeable change in the new translation is that the female character’s name is different (and restored to the original.)
Solaris, the book, opens with Kelvin, a psychologist and student of the planet Solaris who has been sent to discover what is wrong at the Solaris research station. Solaris is a world, with two suns that has a living ‘ocean’. This single organism has been studied for several generations at this point. The research station (not a space station, but a terrestrial station that floats in the atmosphere) only has 3 people.
When Kelvin arrives, it is just after his friend, mentor and Solaris station commander has committed suicide. No one meets Kelvin and he has to search out the staff. Snout, the communications expert talks to him and gives him an obscure warning.
Over time it comes out that Solaris is taking memories of people out of the minds of those that are on the station and recreating dead people from their past. For Kelvin, it is his wife that committed suicide 12 years earlier.
There are some interesting themes in this book. One of the ones that I had not picked up on earlier readings (or was not as clear in the other translation) is the exploration of the limits of science. Kelvin and Snout have an interesting conversation about science’s ability to discover how, but now why. This thought comes up several times later as Kelvin works through the ethics of what he should do about these ‘guests’.
The clearer theme of the book is what is means to be human. Are these guests human? Is life with them something that should be pursued? This is a classic science fiction book that uses the genre of science fiction to explore philosophical ideas. This is the type of science fiction that I like to read. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea.
I did not remember the LONG passages about the background and science of Solaris. This is a first person narrative, so there are lots of internal dialogue with Kelvin. It is not an action book. It is an idea book. I think it is well worth reading, but if you like your science fiction to be mostly action based, you will probably not like Solaris.