Stanislaw Lem's Solaris has the well earned reputation of a science fiction classic.
Dr Kris Kelvin is a psychologist sent to a space station hovering above the planet Solaris. The space station is involved in research work, trying to assess life forms on the planet. Two other scientists, Snow and Sartorius, are working on the station when Kelvin arrives. The novel opens dramatically as Kelvin is told by Snow that another scientist on board, Gibarian, has committed suicide. Snow is clearly shaken by what has happened and refuses (or is unable, due to his trauma) to say what happened. Sartorius has withdrawn and is virtually living as a recluse on the space station.
The reason for the fraught psychological state of the space station is the strange apparition of people from the scientists' past. Kelvin soon understands what is going on when is confronted by Rheya, an ex-lover from his past who committed suicide when he left her. She appears real and Kelvin, full of remorse for how their relationship ended, falls in love again with this copy of Rheya that has appeared.
The scientists start to piece together what they think may have happened. The long history of the study of Solaris has shown that the ocean that mostly covers the planet, which is made of a plasmatic kind of jelly, is actually a living being. It has been reading the minds of the scientists and then creating people from their past and placing them on the space station. It's almost a strategy of psychological warfare, but the scientists can't be sure. Their repeated attempts at communication with the ocean have been futile.
Solaris is a perfectly written and imagined short novel, each page maintaining an exquisite suspense. The novel has a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere that eerily clings. The space station and planet Solaris are so brilliantly drawn that the whole story feel very real. This aspect mixed with the fraught mental states of the scientists (they are all one step away from going mad) makes Solaris utterly compelling. It's the sort of story that is hard to forget once finished.
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. Published by Faber Classics. ISBN: 9780571311576 RRP: $19.99
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