Psychologist Kelvin arrives at the station on Solaris to investigate the death of one of the three scientists currently manning the station. Solaris is a planet revolving around two suns, one blue and one red. Kelvin is immediately thrown into conflict with Snaut, the first character he meets. Older scientist Snaut, who has been on Solaris for some time, is behaving oddly, acting crazy. But things are not always as they appear. Within hours, even the sensible Kelvin can’t separate what is real from what is unreal, he experiences hallucinations so life like that he can touch them. Strange things are happening at the station. How did Gibarian die? And why did he leave coded messages for Kelvin to find?
The planet itself is an important character in the story. Contrary to belief, life can exist on a planet revolving around double suns, and on Solaris life takes the shape of a vast, biological ocean. Scientists agree that the ocean is a sentinent being, with the strange ability to affect the planet’s orbit around the suns. We are introduced to this being through the windows of the station and through the literature Kelvin recounts during the course of the story. It’s ever-changing hues and it’s strange manifestations are described with detail. Throughout the novel, I struggled to get a grip of this creature, and Lem kept me guessing up to the very end. The ocean looms around the station as a malevolent guardian, heavy and intense. Lem creates the feeling of being on board of a ship that is just about to sink, it’s crew members watching the over-powering ocean pushing against the sheaths of glass in the port holes. The heat of the double suns contributes to the tense mood and shifts in the lighting is used to create different feelings. As warm red brightness is contrasted with cold blue and white shimmers, the characters are affected emotionally.
The mood is menacing and threatening from the first moment Kelvin lands on Solaris. Lem’s language is swift and full of movement, he pulls the reader through the story. Once and again, however, the story stalls and the text is weighed down by very scientific elements, such as re-tellings of the history of mankind’s research on Solaris. So the basic story of the novel, the exciting mystery to be solved, is balanced with a slow-paced story about the discovery of Solaris and the years leading up to the story’s present.
Solaris is a story about the First Contact and mankind’s attempt to communicate with an alien species. While the characters dissolve mentally under the influence of the ocean on Solaris, they analyse the ocean’s every act in order to find a message, to understand it’s purpose. But how will the human scientists ever be able to understand the intentions of a vast ocean of plasma? Kelvin goes to Solaris to investigate Gibarian’s death, but is caught in a dilemma of his own. He is forced to dig up his darkest and most painful memories, in order to save himself and his colleagues. In order to understand Solaris, he needs to understand himself.
This was a haunting, but fascinating story. Filled with elements of wonder and surprise, of fear and discomfort, of beauty and awe.